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Government Agencies Buying Big Data To Avoid Warrants

| Sep 8, 2020 | Criminal Defense |

As a general rule, technology evolves much faster than the laws that govern it. Because of this, many new technologies can be used toward ends that most of us would consider a violation of privacy rights, and even a violation of our Constitutional rights. And because there are no laws or court decisions specifically prohibiting the use of a given technology, such use is considered legal.

It is bad enough when private corporations engage in such behavior. But when the government joins in, it becomes a crisis. One of the most recent examples of this problem is federal agencies buying location data (generated by cellphones) from private companies in order to get around requirements to obtain warrants. Put another way, these agencies are using taxpayer dollars to violate the due process rights of potentially anyone in the U.S., including the taxpayers funding such moves.

The Supreme Court has previously issued rulings requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before they can access historical cell site location data. The Court held that warrantless searches of this data are a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. To get around the warrant requirement, at least three agencies have used a loophole: buying the data in bulk from private companies and claiming that no warrant is needed because they aren’t targeting a single individual. And rather than buying data directly from service providers (which might violate the Supreme Court ruling), they are instead buying from other private companies who bought the data from service providers.

The agencies exploiting this loophole include Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service.

Bulk data collection seems abstract to most of us, but is not very difficult to accurately track the movements of any given person based on this data if you know what to look for. Should any government agency be allowed to have that kind of intimate information without first obtaining a warrant? The letter of the law may not prohibit it (yet), but such actions certainly violate the intentions of the Constitution.

If you’ve been charged with a crime, it is worth investigating how law enforcement obtained the evidence used to charge you. If it was obtained in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights, an attorney may be able to help you petition the court to suppress that evidence, greatly weakening the government’s case.