Today the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the police violated the Constitution when they placed a Global Positioning System tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitored its movements. This helps clarify in many regards the extent to which law enforcement can track private property without a warrant. This raises questions for some in the mobile realm regarding what level of access that law enforcement have when conducting an investigation.
The first step law enforcement take is to determine the service provider from the phone number, there are a number of services that allow users to do this free. The next step is to determine probable cause or exigent circumstances such as a child abduction, missing person, fugitive etc. The provider will then send information to the law enforcement agent to complete, that information is then faxed back.
The law enforcement agent can send a preservation letter to the provider to ensure that records are not discarded regarding the target phone number, such as text messages and voicemail which is sometimes only retained for 72 hours. The next step is a subpoena, this will allow law enforcement access to basic transaction data, this is limited to account details, billing records and account notes. This is usually sent via fax to a specific number at a provider for this purpose.
In order to get deeper information a court order or search warrant is filed. When this happens law enforcement can get detailed records including incoming and outgoing calls, cell tower locations and general location information, text message content, voicemail content and other information.
The hierarchy of protection regarding your cell data is as follows:
- Transaction records ( name, number billing)
- Numbers dialed, incoming and outgoing
- Location data, from cell towers
- Content of stored communication such as email, voice, text messages
- Content of telephone conversations ( wiretap )
It is a crime to access electronic communications without the proper authorization and it is outlined to law enforcement pretty clearly the process and circumstances the data should be accessed. According to 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2711 Section 2703(c) a court order, search warrant or customer consent is required for the release of electronic communications including location data. A subpoena can be used to obtain basic transactional data, but cannot be used to get location information.