Warrantless tracking through cell wireless phones found to violate Fourth Amendment; Issue at the center of ACLU investigation into police use of “Stingray” trackers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – October 16, 2014
CONTACT: ACLU of Florida Media Office, media@aclufl.org, (786) 363-2737

TALLAHASSEE, FL - Today, the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision requiring police in Florida to obtain a warrant in order to use cell phone location tracking technology to track a person’s location in real time. The court said that the failure to obtain such a warrant constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable government searches.

Public records requests submitted by the ACLU to dozens of state and local law enforcement agencies across Florida have revealed widespread use of cell phone tracking devices known as “Stingrays,” which mimic cell towers and trick all phones in the area into transmitting their identifying information and location. Based on these records, it appears that many police departments in Florida have been using Stingrays without warrants. The ACLU has also been involved in investigating instances in which police in Florida appear to have not only been using the Stingrays without warrants, but also to be working with the U.S. Marshals Service to hide their use.

Police are also able to track cell phones in real time by submitting requests to cell service providers, which was the technique at issue in today’s ruling. Today’s opinion means that police must either comply with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement or stop conducting invasive cell phone location tracking using Stingrays and other means.

Responding to today’s decision, ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson stated:

“This is a big victory for privacy in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court has definitively stated what we have asserted all along: that police can’t track your movements in public using these cell phone tracking tools without first getting a warrant. Technology is changing all the time, but just because a technology you own is newer than the Constitution’s protections doesn’t mean it is exempt from them. Police all over the state should now put an end to warrantless cell phone surveillance once and for all.”

Nate Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, stated:

“Today’s opinion is a resounding defense of our right to privacy in the digital age. Following people’s movements by secretly turning their cell phones into tracking devices can reveal extremely sensitive details of our lives, like where we go to the doctor or psychiatrist, where we spend the night, and who our friends are. Police are now on notice that they need to get a warrant from a judge before tracking cell phones, whether using information from the service provider or their own ‘Stingray’ cell phone tracking equipment.”

The court’s full decision is available here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2014/sc11-2254.pdf

More information on Stingrays and where police use them is available here: https://www.aclu.org/maps/stingray-tracking-devices-whos-got-them

More information about the ACLU’s investigation into Stingray cell phone trackers in Florida, including police efforts to hide their use, is available here: https://aclufl.org/2014/06/20/internal-police-emails-show-efforts-to-hide-use-of-cell-phone-tracking/

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