UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
August 27, 2010
IN THE MATTER OF AN APPLICATION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA FOR AN ORDER AUTHORIZING THE RELEASE OF HISTORICAL CELL-SITE INFORMATION.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Orenstein, Magistrate Judge.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
The United States seeks an order pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2703(c)-(d) (the "Stored Communications Act" or "SCA"), directing Sprint Nextel to disclose, with respect to all calls and text messages to and from a certain mobile telephone over a period of 58 days, all "recorded information identifying the base station towers and sectors that received transmissions from" that telephone. Docket Entry ("DE") 1 at 1.*fn1 The government has proffered "specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the information sought is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation." Id. ¶ 2. The government also takes the position that the proffered facts establish "probable cause" sufficient to permit the issuance of a warrant for historical cell-site information pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, id. at 2 n.1, but it nevertheless has expressly declined to seek such relief, preferring instead to rely exclusively on the SCA. For the reasons set forth below, I deny the government's application on the ground that the Fourth Amendment requires the government to obtain a warrant, based on a showing of probable cause on oath or affirmation, in order to secure the information it seeks.
A. The Instant Application
On August 16, 2010, the government submitted an ex parte application for historical CSI for the period from May 1 through June 27, 2010, for a telephone issued by service provider Sprint Nextel to a subscriber named Edwin Espinosa ("Espinosa"), but actually used by the target of a continuing criminal investigation named Tyshawn Augustus ("Augustus"). Application at 1 & ¶¶ 3-4. The application relied exclusively on the SCA as authority for the requested relief, and purported to do no more than proffer "specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the information sought is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation." Application ¶ 2 (citing 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d)). After I expressed concern to the applicant that recent case law, as discussed below, might instead require a showing of probable cause to satisfy the Fourth Amendment, the government submitted a revised application that differed from its predecessor only by including the following disclaimer: "Although not required, the government submits that the facts set forth herein provide ... probable cause." DE 1 (revised Application) ¶ 2 n.1.*fn2
The government's assertion did not alleviate my concern. Even assuming that the facts proffered in the revised Application sufficed to establish probable cause, those facts could not simply be proffered but would instead have to be established by means of an affidavit or affirmation. See U.S. Const. Amend. IV ("no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation"). I so informed the applicant and invited him to cure that defect. After consulting with his colleagues in the United States Attorney's Office, the applicant informed me that the government preferred to rely exclusively on the authority of the SCA. I therefore requested the government to submit a letter brief in support of its position that, notwithstanding recent case law, its request for relief is consistent with the Fourth Amendment. The government did so on August 19, 2010. DE 4 (the "Letter").*fn3
B. The Changing Legal Landscape
I have previously granted requests similar to the one I now deny. Notwithstanding my view that the relevant statutes require an application for prospective CSI to establish probable cause, see In the Matter of an Application of the United States for an Order (1) Authorizing the Use of a Pen Register and a Trap and Trace Device and (2) Authorizing Release of Subscriber Info. And/or Cell Site Info., 396 F. Supp. 2d 294 (E.D.N.Y. 2005) ("CSI: Central Islip II");*fn4 but see, e.g., CSI: Brooklyn, 632 F. Supp. 2d 202 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); CSI: New York, 405 F. Supp. 2d 435 (S.D.N.Y. 2005); I have previously concluded -- and continue to believe -- that as a statutory matter the SCA permits a court to issue the order the government now seeks without a showing of probable cause. See CSI: Central Islip II, 396 F. Supp. 2d at 397 n.10 (citing CSI: Houston (2005), 396 F. Supp. 2d 747, 759 n.16 (S.D. Tex. 2005)); see also United States v. Benford, 2010 WL 12666507 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 26, 2010); CSI: Boston, 509 F. Supp. 2d 76 (D. Mass. 2007) (reversing 509 F. Supp. 2d 64 (D. Mass. 2007) (decision of magistrate judge)); United States v. Suarez-Blanca, 2008 WL 4200156 (N.D. Ga. Apr. 21, 2008); but see CSI: Pittsburgh, 534 F. Supp. 2d 585 (W.D. Pa. 2008), aff'd on motion for reconsideration by district judge, 2008 WL 4191511 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 10, 2008) (appeal pending); CSI: Austin, 2010 WL 3021950 (W.D. Tex. July 29, 2010); CSI: Fort Wayne, 2006 WL 1876847 (N.D. Ill. July 5, 2006).*fn5
Statutory authority, of course, is not sufficient if such authority purports to allow, without a showing of probable cause, a search or seizure that must be considered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.*fn6 I have not previously balked at issuing orders to disclose historical CSI on a showing of "specific and articulable facts" pursuant to the SCA in large part because, until now, the federal appellate courts to have addressed the issue have uniformly interpreted United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983), to hold that location tracking outside the home is analogous to physical surveillance and therefore does not require a warrant. See United States v. Marquez, 605 F.3d 604 (8th Cir. 2010); United States v. Pineda-Moreno, 591 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2010), reh'g en banc denied, --- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 3169573 (9th Cir. Aug. 12, 2010); United States v. Garcia, 474 F.3d 994 (7th Cir. 2007).
That uniformity no longer exists. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently reversed the conviction of a defendant on the ground that evidence obtained in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment had improperly, and prejudicially, been admitted at trial. The investigating agents obtained such evidence by surreptitiously, and without a valid warrant, installing on the defendant's vehicle a global-positioning-system ("GPS") device that allowed them to track the location of that vehicle continuously for a month. See United States v. Maynard,--- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 3063788, at *7-*18 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 6, 2010). In reaching its decision, the court explained in detail why it was not foreclosed by the result or the reasoning in Knotts -- to the contrary, the court explained how the Knotts opinion had refrained from holding that prolonged warrantless location tracking was consistent with the Fourth Amendment. See id. at *8-*9; see also Pineda-Moreno, 2010 WL 3169573, at *4 (Kozinski, C.J., dissenting) (similarly distinguishing Knotts).
The decision in Maynard is just one of several rulings in recent years reflecting a growing recognition, at least in some courts, that technology has progressed to the point where a person who wishes to partake in the social, cultural, and political affairs of our society has no realistic choice but to expose to others, if not to the public as a whole, a broad range of conduct and communications that would previously have been deemed unquestionably private. See Maynard, 2010 WL 3063788, at *13 & n.*, *15 (noting that pattern of movements over prolonged period, including to places such as church or doctor's office, reveals "intimate portrait" of subject's life and that cost and effort to deploy and continue using GPS surveillance is insignificant, and concluding that "the advent of GPS technology has occasioned a heretofore unknown type of intrusion into an ordinarily and hitherto private enclave"); Warshak v. United States, 490 F.3d 455, 473 (6th Cir. 2007) (holding that an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of email communications is not vitiated by an understanding that the third-party service provider will maintain independent access to them, noting that electronic communication "is as important to Fourth Amendment principles today as protecting telephone conversations has been in the past"), vacated en banc on other grounds, 532 F.3d 521 (6th Cir. 2008); CSI: Pittsburgh, 534 F. Supp. 2d at 610-16 (concluding that interpreting the SCA to allow disclosure of historical CSI without a showing of probable cause renders the statute constitutionally suspect); see also Pineda-Moreno, 2010 WL 3169573, at *7 (Kozinski, C.J., dissenting) ("There is something creepy and un-American about such clandestine and underhanded [continuous surveillance].... Some day, soon, we may wake up and find we're living in Oceania.").
As a result of such decisions, I believe that magistrate judges presented with ex parte requests for authority to deploy various forms of warrantless location-tracking must carefully re-examine the constitutionality of such investigative techniques, and that it is no longer enough to dismiss the need for such analysis by relying on cases such as Knotts or, as discussed below, Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979) (holding that telephone users have no expectation of privacy in dialed telephone numbers because they voluntarily expose such information to the service provider).*fn7 For the reasons discussed below, I now conclude that the Fourth Amendment prohibits as an unreasonable search and seizure the order the government now seeks in the absence of a showing of "probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation[.]" U.S. Const. Amend. IV.
A. Maynard: The "Intimate Picture" Rationale
The Maynard court, in holding that warrantless GPS tracking over the course of a month constituted a search, acknowledged that the federal appellate courts in three sister circuits had reached a contrary conclusion under the Supreme Court's decision in Knotts. Id. at *9 (citing Marquez, 605 F.3d 604; Pineda-Moreno, 591 F.3d 1212, reh'g en banc denied --- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 3169573; Garcia, 474 F.3d 994). In Knotts, the police had used a "beeper" (a form of transmitter) to track a vehicle's progress as it moved from one place to a destination approximately 100 miles away. Knotts, 460 U.S. at 277. The Supreme Court held that there had been no search because the subject, driving on public roads, "voluntarily conveyed to anyone who wanted to look" his progress and route, so he could not reasonably expect privacy in "the fact of his final destination." Id. at 281-82.
While the appellate courts in Marquez, Pineda-Moreno, and Garcia all held that Knotts compelled the finding that prolonged GPS surveillance was not a search, the Maynard court disagreed. It persuasively explained that the Court in Knotts "explicitly distinguished between the limited information discovered by use of [a] beeper -- movements during a discrete journey -- and more comprehensive or sustained monitoring of the sort at issue in [Maynard]." 2010 WL 3063788, at *8 (citing Knotts, 460 U.S. at 283-85). As the Maynard court demonstrated, the other cases involving GPS tracking had all rested on the mistaken understanding that Knotts reserved judgment only as to "whether 'wholesale' or 'mass' electronic surveillance of many individuals requires a warrant," and that, to the contrary, "the Court actually reserved the issue of prolonged surveillance." Id. (emphasis added). In particular, the Knotts Court rejected the respondent's concern that its decision would necessarily lead to the possibility of "twenty-four hour surveillance of any citizen of this country ... without judicial knowledge or supervision[.]" 460 U.S. at 283 (internal quotation marks omitted). To the contrary, the Court wrote that "if such dragnet type law enforcement practices ... should eventually occur, there will be time enough then to determine whether different constitutional principles may be applicable." Id. at 284.
Having established that Knotts did not compel it to reject the defendant's Fourth Amendment claim, the Maynard court proceeded to analyze whether the defendant had an expectation of privacy in the pattern of his movements over time that society recognizes as reasonable. 2010 WL 3063788, at *10 (citing Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001) (citing test from Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967)). The court noted that the Supreme Court's application of Katz precluded there being any reasonable expectation of privacy in information that was knowingly exposed to the public, but it explained that "[i]n considering whether something is 'exposed' to the public as that term was used in Katz we ask not what another person can physically and may lawfully do but rather what a reasonable person expects another might actually do." Id. Applying that principle, the court wrote,
[W]e hold that the whole of a person's movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood a stranger would observe all those movements is not just remote, it is essentially nil. It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even to follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work. It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after that, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person's hitherto private routine.
Id. at *12.
The court also addressed whether the defendant had constructively exposed the pattern of his movements over the month by having conducted each individual movement in public view. Id. at *12-*14. The court found that prolonged surveillance reveals information that differs in kind, not just in degree, from the results of any short-term surveillance. For example, while a single visit to a particular location might not reveal much, a pattern of visits would reveal if a person "is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups -- and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts." Id. at *13. Indeed, the court noted that the government had made the pattern of the defendant's movements, as opposed to any one movement, central to its case, reinforcing the distinctive quality of such a collection of data. Id. at *13 n.*. The court found that "[a] reasonable person does not expect anyone to monitor and retain a record of every time he drives his car, including his origin, route, destination, and each place he stops and how long he stays there; rather, he expects each of those movements to remain disconnected and anonymous." Id. at *14 (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, the court found no constructive exposure of the pattern of movements.
Reasoning that prolonged GPS monitoring of a person's car travels reveals a picture of his life so intimate that he expects no one except perhaps his spouse to have it, the court held that the defendant's expectation of privacy in such information was reasonable. Id. at *14; see also id. at *15 (collecting, as indicative albeit non-conclusive evidence of societal understandings, statutes from eight states that impose penalties for use of electronic tracking devices and expressly exclude evidence produced by such devices unless obtained by police pursuant to warrant).
I find the opinion in Maynard persuasive, both with respect to its demonstration that Knotts is not dispositive on the issue of prolonged location tracking, and with respect to its analysis of the privacy interest at stake when the government uses technological means to accomplish the kind of prolonged, continuous, and detailed surveillance that would otherwise be impossible.*fn8 I therefore proceed to consider whether the Maynard court's reasoning applies with equal force in the circumstances of this case.
There are four primary factual differences between the real-time GPS vehicle tracking at issue in Maynard and the instant application for access to historical CSI records of a mobile telephone. First, in Maynard the government tracked the defendant's movements in real time; here, they seek information about Augustus's past movements. Second, the investigation in Maynard involved surveillance rather than disclosure: agents tracked their subject, albeit remotely, by means of technology in their own hands; here, by contrast, the government seeks only access to records created and maintained by a third-party service provider. Third, the GPS technology used in Maynard allowed for greater precision than the CSI requested here -- a distinction that is heightened by the fact that the government anticipates obtaining only "single tower" CSI (as opposed to "multiple tower" CSI that permits triangulation). Fourth, the investigators in Maynard tracked their subject by locating his car; here, by contrast, the agents seek to learn about their subject's movements by obtaining information about the location of his mobile telephone. I address each difference in turn, as well as certain additional distinctions that the government proffers in support of its application. As explained below, I conclude -- albeit with no small amount of hesitation -- that none of those differences renders Maynard inapposite.
B. The Difference Between Historical And Prospective Location Tracking
The government first tries to distinguish Maynard on the ground that in the latter case, "law enforcement officers caused data to be created that would not otherwise have existed. By contrast, in this case the government seeks access to data that a third party already created, collected and maintained in the ordinary course of its business." Letter at 4; see also id. (noting, in the course of a separate argument, that the requested CSI "is being sought only retrospectively"). To the extent this argument focuses on the temporal difference between prospective and historical location tracking, I am unpersuaded.*fn9
The fact that the government seeks information that has already been created says nothing about whether its creator has a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information. If a law enforcement agent wants to read an individual's diary, there can be no question that the government thereby "seeks access to data that [was] already created, collected and maintained[.]"
I nevertheless remain confident the government would agree that the diary's author enjoys a reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents.
The distinction between retrospective and prospective application may have many implications, but providing a reason to find Maynard inapposite is not one of them. As the government acknowledges, a critical component of the court's rationale was the fact that the warrantless surveillance at issue revealed an "intimate picture of the subject's life[.]" Maynard, 2010 WL 3063788, at *13 (quoted in DE 4 at 3). The picture of Tyshawn Augustus's life the government seeks to obtain is no less intimate simply because it has already been painted.
C. The Difference Between Surveillance And Disclosure
The government argues that a critical distinction between this case and Maynard is the fact that here it seeks nothing from Augustus, but instead seeks information that Augustus necessarily revealed to the mobile communication service provider when he used the subject telephone. As the government notes, "the entire collection of data the government seeks has already been 'actually exposed' to a third party: Sprint Nextel." DE 4 at 4 (quoting Maynard, 2010 WL 3063788, at *12).*fn10 In so arguing, the government understandably relies on two decisions by the Supreme Court. In United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976), the Court rejected a Fourth Amendment challenge to a subpoena for bank records on the ground that such documents were not the respondent's "'private papers'" but were instead "the business records of the banks" in which a customer "can assert neither ownership nor possession." Id. at 440 (quoted in Letter at 5 (citing also SEC v. Jerry T. O'Brien, Inc., 467 U.S. 735, 743 (1984) ("when a person communicates information to a third party ... he cannot object [on the basis of the Fourth Amendment] if the third party conveys that information or records thereof to law enforcement authorities"))). Even more closely analogous, in Smith v. Maryland, the Court expressed doubt that any telephone user actually harbors an expectation of privacy in the numbers dialed and ruled, in any event, that such an expectation would not be reasonable because "a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties." 442 U.S. at 743-44. As the Court reasoned, a telephone user "voluntarily convey[s] numerical information to the telephone company" and thereby "assume[s] the risk that the company [may] reveal to the police the numbers he dialed." Id. at 744 (quoted in Letter at 6-7).
Maynard provides no answer to such reasoning, but other equally persuasive cases do. The decision in Warshak explains why a person may reasonably maintain an expectation of privacy in information about herself that she knows to be held by others, and the analysis in CSI: Houston (2005) demonstrates why such an expectation would be particularly reasonable with respect to the location information generated by mobile telephone usage.
In Warshak, the government sought an order pursuant to the SCA requiring an internet service provider ("ISP") to disclose the contents of the defendant's email communications. Warshak, 490 F.3d at 460. The court held that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of his emails despite his understanding that the ISP maintained independent access to those messages. Id. at 473. In reaching that conclusion, the court laid the groundwork for its inquiry by summarizing Katz, in which the Supreme Court held that telephone surveillance that intercepted the content of conversations was a search and Smith, in which the Court held that use of a pen register installed at the telephone company's facility was not. Warshak, 490 F.3d at 470. It then found that the distinction between those cases revealed that "the reasonable expectation of privacy inquiry in the context of shared communications" necessarily turns on two questions. The first inquiry identifies the particular parties with whom the communications at issue were shared and those from whom disclosure was shielded; the second considers the precise nature of the information actually conveyed to the party from whom disclosure is sought. Id.
With respect to the first question, the court explained that sharing information with an intermediary that merely has the ability to access the information cannot erode all expectations of privacy. As the panel observed, courts have found reasonable expectations of privacy exist in the contents of phone conversations, letters, and safe deposit boxes, despite the fact that they are accessible to, respectively, telephone companies, the Postal Service, and banks. Id. As to the second question, the court explained:
Like telephone conversations, simply because the phone company or the ISP could access the content of e-mails and phone calls, the privacy expectation in the content of either is not diminished, because there is a societal expectation that the ISP or the phone company will not do so as a matter of course.
Id. at 471 (emphasis in original). The court found that, while there may be no reasonable expectation of privacy where an ISP's contract explicitly provided that email contents would be regularly monitored and audited, the record before it revealed that the ISP's contract provided for access only in limited circumstances. As a result, the court found a reasonable expectation of privacy did exist. Id. at 473-74.*fn11 In vacating the decision on standing grounds, the en banc court reiterated this logic, noting the variety of privacy policies in ISP contracts and concluding that "[s]ome of these ... agreements could cast doubt on the validity of § 2703(d) in a given case; others might not." Warshak, 532 F.3d at 527.
Even if the reasoning in Warshak does not suggest a reason to view with skepticism the government's argument that any reasonable expectation of privacy disappears when information is held by a third-party service provider, such an argument is particularly ill-suited to the specific context of location tracking, as the court in CSI: Houston (2005) ably explained in rejecting essentially the same argument.
The government contends that probable cause should never be required for cell phone tracking because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in cell site location data, analogizing such information to the telephone numbers found unprotected in Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979). The Sixth Circuit rejected that analogy in United States v. Forest, 355 F.3d 942, 951-52 (6th Cir. 2004). Unlike dialed telephone numbers, cell site data is not "voluntarily conveyed" by the user to the phone company.... [I]t is transmitted automatically during the registration process, entirely independent of the user's input, control, or knowledge. Sometimes, as in Forest, cell site data is triggered by law enforcement's dialing of the particular number. 355 F.3d at 951. For these reasons the Sixth Circuit was persuaded that Smith did not extend to cell site data, but rejected the defendant's constitutional claim on the narrower ground that the surveillance took place on public highways, where there is no legitimate expectation of privacy. Id. at 951-52 (citing United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 281 (1983)).
Further support for a recognizable privacy interest in caller location information is provided by the Wireless Communication and Public Safety Act of 1999. Pub. L. No. 106-81, § 5, 113 Stat. 1288 (Oct. 26, 1999) (codified at 47 U.S.C. § 222(f)). This legislation authorized the deployment of a nation-wide 9-1-1 emergency service for wireless phone users, called "Enhanced 9-1-1." Section 5 of the bill amended the Telecommunications Act to extend privacy protection for the call location information of cell phone users:
(f) Authority to Use Wireless Location Information.--
For purposes of subsection (c)(1) of this section, without the express prior authorization of the customer, a customer shall not be considered to have approved the use or disclosure of or access to--
(1) call location information concerning the user of a commercial mobile service (as such term is defined in section 332(d) of this title), other than in accordance with subsection (d)(4) of this section; ...
47 U.S.C. § 222(f). In other words, location information is a special class of customer information, which can only be used or disclosed in an emergency situation, absent express prior consent by the customer. Based on this statute, a cell phone user may very well have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in his call location information.
CSI: Houston (2005), 396 F. Supp. 2d at 756-57.
The combined effect of Warshak and CSI: Houston (2005) persuades me that the government's reliance on Miller and Smith is misplaced. Indeed, the amendment to the Telecommunications Act mentioned in CSI: Houston (2005) provides an additional basis for distinguishing such case law. Miller involved financial records that banks stored pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970. In holding that an expectation of privacy in such bank records was unreasonable, the Court wrote,
The lack of any legitimate expectation of privacy concerning the information kept in bank records was assumed by Congress in enacting the Bank Secrecy Act, the expressed purpose of which is to require records to be maintained because they "have a high degree of usefulness in criminal tax, and regulatory investigations and proceedings."
Miller, 425 U.S. at 443 (quoting 12 U.S.C. § 1829b(a)(1)). While the Bank Secrecy Act thus expressed a legislative view that people should not expect to maintain privacy in financial records conveyed to banks because of the burden such privacy rights would impose on other important societal interests, the amendment to the Telecommunications Act does precisely the opposite: it expresses legislative approval for the idea that a caller should expect her location information to remain private notwithstanding the unavoidable need to share it with a third-party service provider.*fn12
Thus, not only is it questionable to assume, as a general matter, that a person can never have a reasonable expectation of privacy in information that, by its nature, must be shared with a third-party service provider; it is particularly difficult to make that assumption with respect to mobile telephone location information. I therefore conclude that the distinction between surveillance and disclosure does not foreclose applying Maynard here.
D. The Difference Between CSI and GPS
The government further seeks to distinguish Maynard on the ground that the latter case "involved the most precise of all location information: GPS data[,]" which it contrasts with the "much less precise" CSI requested here. Letter at 4. That argument is the most intuitively appealing one at the government's disposal: to the extent the court's concern in Maynard was the detailed nature of the "intimate picture" of a person's life painted by GPS tracking, it would appear obvious at first blush that a less precise form of location tracking might be less troubling. The government ably highlights the intuitive appeal of that argument by going on to observe that "cell-site information is especially imprecise in an area as densely inhabited as New York City, where many buildings -- and the numerous residences and businesses within those buildings -- are likely to be served by a single base station tower and mobile switching center." Id.
The intuitive appeal of that argument, is, however, no more than that. It does not withstand careful scrutiny in the light of relevant facts about the respective precision of various forms of location tracking technology -- facts that the government largely ignores.*fn13
The unstated premise of the government's argument is that location tracking by means of CSI is less of an intrusion into one's privacy because GPS tracking -- and GPS tracking alone -- reveals a person's precise location. But that is simply not true. Even if GPS technology could reveal the particular building a person had entered -- and as far as I am aware, it is not so precise -- in an urban setting it would not reveal which office or apartment within that building that was the subject's destination. In short, GPS tracking by itself does not necessarily reveal a subject's "[r]epeated visits to church, a gym, a bar, or a bookie[.]" Maynard, 2010 WL 3063788, at *13. Rather, it reveals no more than the subject's repeated visits to the vicinities of such locations -- but with sufficient precision to allow investigators to piece together an intimate picture of the subject's life.
To some extent, the preceding discussion of the limits of GPS tracking is speculative. What is not speculative is that the kind of GPS tracking at issue in Maynard was necessarily imprecise, and quite possibly much less precise than the tracking at issue here. When agents used GPS to track the defendant in Maynard, they could learn no more than the location of his car. If the defendant drove to an associate's home, and parked two blocks away, the tracking information would reveal only his parking spot, not his actual destination. In contrast, when Augustus used his mobile telephone, he broadcast a signal to a cell tower no more than a few hundred feet away from his actual location -- not the tower nearest to the car he may have left blocks away.*fn14 Nevertheless, the Maynard court concluded that a sufficiently large amount of information about the location of a person's car could paint an intimate picture of the person driving it -- and, presumably sometimes parking it some distance from his actual destination. There is simply no reason to think that a similarly large cache of CSI data about the location of a telephone that remains on its user's person will be any less useful in painting such an intimate picture.
The government glosses over that reality in arguing that the CSI it requests "does not include any information at all about where the user was during the vast majority of the day when he was not using the Subject Telephone." Letter at 5. In so arguing, the government blithely ignores that the GPS tracking of the Maynard defendant's car likewise did not reveal "any information at all about where [he] was during the vast majority of the day when he was not" driving.*fn15
At an even more basic level, the government's argument about the relative imprecision of CSI tracking ignores how much more precise such tracking has become in recent years. When the Supreme Court in Knotts took care to leave open the possibility that continuous location tracking over a lengthy period could constitute an unreasonable search, 460 U.S. at 283-84, it was contemplating the use of a "beeper" that used essentially the same mechanism as today's CSI tracking -- and possibly with far less precision. See Pineda-Moreno, 2010 WL 3169573, at *4 (Kozinski, C.J., dissenting) ("The [CSI and GPS] electronic tracking devices used by the police in this case have little in common with the primitive devices in Knotts."); see also CSI: Houston (2005), 396 F. Supp. 2d at 754 (explaining, in part on the basis of material published by the United States Department of Justice, how "beepers on vehicles are now monitored via radio signals using the very same cell phone towers used to transmit cell site data" and noting that as a result of "this convergence in technology, the distinction between cell site data and information gathered by a tracking device has practically vanished").*fn16
Finally, in seeking to distinguish Maynard on the ground that CSI tracking is not very precise, the government proves too much. The only reason the government wants access to the CSI at issue here is that it believes such data will provide meaningful information about Augustus's past movements, even if only by means of his proximity to a specific cell tower at a given time. See DE 1 ¶ 3 (asserting that "the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation" and "will ... corroborat[e] other information concerning the location of Augustus"); cf. Maynard, 2010 WL 3063788, at *13 n.* (noting that government made pattern of movements, as opposed to any one movement, central to its case).
The government cannot have it both ways. If proof of Augustus's mere proximity to a specific cell tower at a specific time does not convey meaningful information about his precise location, then the government's certification for purposes of obtaining such information pursuant to the SCA should be rejected as false. But if that certification is true, as I am confident it is,*fn17 the government cannot be heard to disavow the logical import of that certification simply to avoid scrutiny under the Fourth Amendment.*fn18
E. The Difference Between Vehicle Tracking And Telephone Tracking
One more potential basis for distinguishing Maynard from this case is that people may have a lesser expectation of privacy with respect to the location of their mobile telephones than with respect to their cars. In that vein, the government argues that "[t]he user of the Subject Telephone knows or should know that every time he places or receives a call Sprint Nextel is advised of the cell tower being used, because the user knows that Sprint Nextel may later charge him for its services based in part on his location." Letter at 4-5.
The government provides no factual basis for that assertion, and it strikes me as being not only unsupported but, in recent years, unsupportable. In years gone by, when a brick-sized "mobile" telephone could not fit in the average pocket or purse, the monthly bill for cellular service typically included charges based to some extent on the location of the user's telephone during each call made or received. In recent years, however, I am under the impression that most mobile telephone subscribers pay a flat fee (on a one-time or monthly basis) for a specific number of minutes of call time (or a specific number of text messages), regardless of location. See CSI: Pittsburgh, 534 F. Supp. 2d at 590 n.20 (noting that "the advent of truly national networks and comprehensive cell phone 'plans'" has made location "increasingly irrelevant to service fees"). If that is correct, then there would be no reason -- at least none based on expectations about billing -- for a mobile telephone user to think the service provider would maintain records of the locations of her calls.
I need not inquire further into that factual matter because I do not assume that persons who use mobile telephones are unaware of the fact that by doing so they expose themselves to location tracking. Indeed, with the growing availability and popularity of commercial applications that allow a mobile telephone user to affirmatively broadcast her location, I assume that most people are -- or will soon be -- aware of that fact. But that assumption does not preclude reliance on the conclusion in Maynard that people in this country have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their movements over extended periods of time. To the contrary, I believe that a growing awareness of the possibility of location tracking of mobile telephones has also produced a growing expectation that such tracking can and should be controlled.
Mobile telephones equipped with tracking capabilities such as GPS-- the vast majority, as a result of federal law*fn20 -- often also include features that lead the user to believe that such tracking has been disabled. Commercial location-tracking services tout their subscribers' ability to limit, or even delete, the dissemination of such information. Simply put, there is no reason to think that the advance of technology brings with it an expectation that privacy is lost; rather, I assume that it serves only to increase awareness of the importance of privacy and to whet the appetite for ways to manage it.*fn21
F. The Government's Other Arguments
I believe that the foregoing discussion addresses as best I can (without unduly delaying the government's investigation) the strongest arguments in support of the proposition that Maynard does not invalidate the SCA's procedure for obtaining historical CSI on a showing of less than probable cause. In the interest of completeness, I turn to two additional arguments the government raises in its Letter.
First, the government notes that "the Maynard law enforcement officers covertly placed equipment upon the defendant's property in order to obtain location information. Here, the location information originated from equipment -- a cell phone -- that a person knowingly and voluntarily used and which equipment transmitted data as part of its normal operation." Letter at 4. The observation, while unquestionably correct, is meaningless. It is equally correct to observe that a mobile telephone user knowingly and voluntarily speaks into her device, which then broadcasts the contents of her communications as part of its normal operations. That fact plainly does not shield the contents of the broadcast communications from the protection of the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.
Second, the government contends that "in Maynard the GPS device provided data to the government 24 hours a day, allowing law enforcement officers to track the defendant in real time. Here, cell-site data exists only for the moments in time during which the phone was engaged in a call or text message transmission[.]" Id. This last argument is not only as meritless as its predecessor as a matter of logic, it does not even have the virtue of being factually correct. While it may be true that the GPS device in Maynard provided continuous data about the location of the subject's car, it only provided information sufficient to "track the defendant" himself "for the moments in time during which" he was "engaged in" driving that car. As a practical matter, then, there is no reason to suspect that the tracking at issue in Maynard was in any meaningful sense more continuous than would be produced by the CSI the government seeks here. Indeed, as explained in the preceding section, tracking a vehicle may provide less continuous information about a subject's location than tracking his mobile telephone.
Moreover, even if the government's factual assertion were supportable, the difference between continuous location tracking and the tracking of a person's location at particular points in time is ultimately unpersuasive as a basis on which to distinguish Maynard. The Maynard court's concern with sustained GPS tracking over the course of a month was not its formally continuous nature, but rather the fact that it results in a vast collection of specific data points that, viewed together, convey the "intimate picture" of the subject's life. It is the ability to amass a collection of such points, and not the ability to trace the route from each one to the next, that carries with it the ability to resolve those points into a comprehensible picture. Thus, the fact that the government now seeks only certain data points, by itself, does not serve to distinguish the investigative technique at issue here from the one considered in Maynard in any meaningful way.
I recognize that "[t]he judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear." City of Ontario, Cal. v. Quon, --- U.S. ----, 130 S.Ct. 2619, 2629 (2010) (citing Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928), overruled by Katz, 389 U.S. at 353). It likewise risks error in being too reticent on that score. In particular, by waiting too long to weigh in on the constitutionality of warrantless access to newly created kinds of information, the judiciary risks the error of transforming from mere assertion to self-fulfilling prophecy the government's contention that people categorically lack any reasonable expectation of privacy in such information.
As the Supreme Court acknowledged in Quon when it alluded to the progression from Olmstead to Katz, the Fourth Amendment's concept of an "unreasonable" intrusion into one's personal affairs, by its very nature, is not stuck in the amber of the year 1791. That concept must instead evolve along with the myriad ways in which humans contrive to interact with one another. As the threads that connect us are increasingly entrusted into the hands of strangers who promise to make those connections broader, more intimate, more efficient, and more productive, a jurisprudence that mechanically relies on that fact to disclaim the need for meaningful oversight of the government's investigative techniques unwisely abandons the critical and continuing task of identifying the expectations of privacy our society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.
The Fourth Amendment cannot properly be read to impose on our populace the dilemma of either ceding to the state any meaningful claim to personal privacy or effectively withdrawing from a technologically maturing society. Because I conclude, for the reasons set forth above, that granting the government's request for warrantless access to almost two months' worth of historical cell-site location records would help to create just such a dilemma, I deny its application.
Dated: Brooklyn, New York August 27, 2010
JAMES ORENSTEIN U.S. Magistrate Judge