Big Brother wants to track cell phones

Americans own nearly 300 million cell phones.  These ubiquitous electronic devices are used billions of times every day to make phone calls, place orders, locate destinations, pay bills, text messages, read emails, and browse the web.  In a single generation, phone books, road maps, and pay phones have been rendered virtually extinct. 

Recognizing the treasure trove of information that can be revealed by or retrieved from these devices, the federal government now wants to use our cell phones and other personal communication devices for something quite different from the purposes for which we purchase and employ these now-essential tools.

In arguments earlier this month before a federal appeals court in Philadelphia, lawyers for President Barack Obama made the case that the government should be able to easily track the location of cell phone users without first securing a warrant.  In making this argument, the Obama Administration mimics the position taken by its predecessor. 

The government’s reasoning rests largely on two pillars — one legal, the other practical — but both of which ought to be rejected by the court.

Bad guys use cell phones to communicate with each other to arrange drug deals, rob banks, and commit all manner of other crimes.  The government wants to know where these lawbreakers are — or where they have been — and one of the easiest ways to do that is to be able to track the places where they used their cell phones.  While we all want the police to apprehend those who would do us harm; there is more to the equation than simply making that often difficult task as easy as possible.   

The government also relies on the legal fiction that simply by using a cell phone, a person “consents” to a third party (their telecommunications carrier) having information from which their location can be determined.  The government then argues that the users have no “expectation of privacy” such as might entitle them to have the government obtain a warrant from a judge before it can access records of where the individuals have used, or are using, their cell phones.

Ask any group of American citizens if they consider that simply by using cell phones they are consenting to let Uncle Sam track their every movement, and the resounding “NO” would be heard from Atlanta to Capitol Hill.  Fortunately, the federal magistrate who issued the order which the administration is appealing in Philadelphia agreed with that common sense view.  The magistrate’s ruling against the government also happens to be in accord with the clear intention of our Founding Fathers, who crafted the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution.  That all-important provision protects each of us against any unreasonable search or seizure, and requires that in most instances the government first obtain a warrant based on probable cause.

These protections against the privacy-invasive position being staked out by the Department of Justice, would be rendered largely devoid of meaning if, by simply using an electronic device to communicate privately, the user opens himself to surreptitious tracking of his whereabouts by government agents.

As noted by at least one of the appellate judges before whom the government lawyer argued, permitting the government to easily and without restraint track the location of cell phone users, would reveal far more than the geographic coordinates from which a call was placed.  It might reveal the person was at an anti-government protest, or was attending a political or religious event hoping to be free from government snooping.  The person might even have been visiting a paramour with the intent not to reveal that fact to prying electronic eyes.  

Uncle Sam should not be privy to such information without a darn good reason – even if this make its job of catching criminals slightly less easy.

72 comments Add your comment


February 23rd, 2010
9:49 am

All of just need to watch the 1998 film “Enemy of the State” with Will Smith, Gene Hackman and Jon Voight to see what will happen…


February 23rd, 2010
9:51 am

Robert Dean is just a successful and gutsy labor lawyer when he runs into an old college friend who was a big hurry. Unknown to him, that friend secretly drops a disc and viewer containing footage of a political assassination overseen by the senior advisor to the National Security Agency. Unfortunately, that politician soon learns what Dean has in his possession and secretly uses the vast resources of the NSA to find, investigate and stop him before he goes public. Soon, Dean finds himself on the run, with his assets frozen, his loved ones watched and actively hunted by NSA agents using all the surveillance technology they have available. Not knowing what is going, Dean must stay one step ahead while trying to figure out the cause of this mess. He comes into contact with a former government operative and surveillance expert, who is his only way out.

joe matarotz

February 23rd, 2010
2:25 pm

Uh, Bobo, they already can do this. Phones are E911 compliant so they can be tracked by emergency services. For heaven’s sake, Bob, get a grip. What is your next column going to be? “The Government Uses Phones To Call People”? To say you have a flair for the obvious is the understatement of the year.


February 23rd, 2010
3:01 pm

Justin – 9:49 & 9:51 – February 23 –

- Great reference! I liked this movie so much, I have a link for you:


February 23rd, 2010
4:43 pm

Uh, you pay for the service- it isn’t a right. You pay for calls made from where you are shown to be, to places where you want the other caller to hear you (long distance). Your telephone numbers are used by a number of different companies and agencies to locate where you are and where you want to call.

I’m sorry, but the expectation of privacy while using the cell phone just isn’t there. You gave some of that up when you wnet from a landline to a cell phone, that has to use corporate cells to send and receive. It’s sorta like going from a quiet bedroom conversation with your spouse to shouting from a rood top. One can be expected to be private, but the other one is not.


February 24th, 2010
11:56 am

The headline is incorrect. It is not Big Brother who wants to track your cell phone.

It is Barack obama’s Justice Department who wants to track your cell phone, and you with it.

People, this is what you get when you give Liberals and Statists power. You should learn to expect this.

For all who are posting ways to avoid surveilance, Why?

Why should innocent people going about their daily routine have to try to keep a step ahaead of the government?

The Constitution was written to prevent this kind of crap.

michael redbourn

February 24th, 2010
5:17 pm

This article is just a crib of articles that appeared a couple of weeks ago on lots of other sites.

Just one example.


February 24th, 2010
5:57 pm

Hey Bob – what exactly were your positions on the subject back when Congress (your former employer) was considering issues like CALEA and the Patriot Act? As I recall, you were singing a slighly different tune back then.


February 24th, 2010
8:17 pm

How could any discussion of this be complete without including the Republican presidency master minded Patriot Act? While I agree that the use of a cell phone does not imply third party participation, there is no difference between this and wiretapping. It is unfortunate that in times of freedom our best reactions seem to be to limit the liberties of our own citizens for the sake of themselves – safety is considered in a reaction with the only logical form of movement the expansion of powers, infringing upon the lives of citizens.


February 24th, 2010
8:38 pm

Well it’s not Bush, so all of the sudden itll be OK with the Dems.


February 24th, 2010
9:14 pm

Turning off your cell phone isn’t sufficient. You must remove the battery to keep it from being tracked.


February 24th, 2010
10:01 pm

If we loose “the presumption of” this privacy, will ordinary citizens be able to buy location data about each other — or will that privilege be reserved for those ‘more equal than others’ in the government?
I am a little surprised to see the Obama administration attempting to erode our civil rights this way. He does conceive of Government as the great provider and protector. How unfortunate for citizens, and for Obama.

Where’s the Uproar? « Cornell Insider

February 24th, 2010
10:51 pm

[...] by dennisshiraev on February 24, 2010 As Bob Barr writes on his blog, the Obama administration is interested in tracking your cell phone records: “In arguments [...]


February 25th, 2010
12:43 am

NO ATTACK ON THE CONSTITUTION, HERE FOLKS. There’s nothing to see. Move along. Move along. There’s no privacy issue. You yokels turn on your cell phones – the government has right to all that data.
Horsepucky! Its a wiretap. Obama wants an unwarranted wiretap. Period.
They’re not even talking about a national security screening warrant. They’re asking the courts to turn over a judicial decision and give them carte blanche.
Who is this guy, Obama, really?

Jim H

February 26th, 2010
1:20 am

I’d feel a lot worse about it if they were asking to tap the phones. Basically, digital signals are encrypted. They’re not completely secure anymore, but it’s not a trivial job to decrypt a conversation. The government satellites are open signals. It would seem that the location doesn’t give you much unless you know the number, which then gives you a lot. Turn on a tracker for a city and tens of thousands of phone locations light up. You need to know that the guy you suspect of drug dealing has a number of xxx-xxx-xxxx, and then you could find the location. Say it’s a kidnapper, okay?

There’s a lot of privacy concerns about the digital age, but I just don’t find this one of them.

Andre Richards

February 26th, 2010
3:38 am

So, penning this kind of alarmist, yellow journalism is what Bob Barr does when he’s not leading the town villagers against the Bill Clinton?

Sorry, gonna go with my guy instinct on this one: non-credible source.

Alan Ritter

February 26th, 2010
8:17 am

We live in a prison whose walls are so far away most of us never come up against them.

Carl Rinko

February 26th, 2010
9:14 am

Wow, this is some pretty amazing stuff dude. I like it.



March 28th, 2010
4:26 pm

So why is this bad NOW, Mr. Barr, and not when you voted for it? The E911 legislation was put into law in 2003, while you were still in congress. Said E911 law made it mandatory to have location tracking devices in all cell phones. Had you not backed and voted for that law, there would be no information to glean. I’m not buying this crap about you all of a sudden getting on the civil liberties bandwagon, your record speaks FAR louder than your new words.


June 4th, 2010
4:12 am

For the record, and for the last time, it will be impossible to “inject” any kind of long distance tracking device into anyone or anything for at least 60 years. The simple physics of radio signals wont allow this to happen at all yet, let alone providing a battery small enough yet powerful enough to transmit a signal far enough through skin and fluid!

I understand the utter contempt from people who argue against a “nanny state” or “big brother” but really, you should at least argue your points with grounded and realistic points… otherwise you just make yourselves look like the sterio-typical protestor who has nothing better to do with their lives than kick up a fuss about things that seem topical.

the biggest single thing that annoys me about all of this (and I am in the industry) is that whether we like it or not, this is the way the world is going and unless we all start going back to collecting berries and shooting things with bows and arrows, there aint a damn thing anyone can do about it!

your personal data, your shopping preferences, your last few key strokes on your pc, and literally your own location are all being collected without your knowledge now anyway… have you been able to stop it? no! will you ever be able to stop it? sure… dont use a pc, telephone, cellphone, ATM, dont have a job, dont have any kind of wage coming in, and definatley dont go walking outside without a hat or face mask and sure, you may find that you drop off the grid!… failing that… stop wasting your life worrying about it and just get on with whats left of it.

Nearly all of this data collected from you and about you is never really looked at or used against you anyway so whats the big deal? who cares if the “government knows that you like cranberry juice in the morning and that you drink at the rose and crown every thursday after work?” do you think that you are really that important that they (the government) actually give a **** about you?

Its a beautiful day outside… go enjoy it and get off the computer for a while! life is too short.


June 4th, 2010
4:21 am


switching your cellphone off now will not do any good… even taking the battery out now will still not stop it sending back its location to the nearest BST once every hour or so.

All new mobile phones are manufactured with a “heartbeat” battery that cannot be removed and is only ON when the main battery is off or removed.

It omits a registration with the network every hour for a few seconds then shuts off… will last for up to six months.

its used to track lost phones, suicide victims (by their phone) and phones thrown away after use in crimes.

If you want to stop your phone being tracked… hit it with a 7lbs sledghammer a few times and throw it in the sea.

failing that… simply dont use one. :)

who’s worried now?