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Can My Cellphone Data Be Used Against Me?

By FindLaw Staff | Last updated on

Anytime you post on social media, do an internet search, or subscribe to a newsletter, you leave a digital footprint that is a record of almost all of your online activity.

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and kicked the issue of abortion regulation back to the states, several acted quickly to enact total bans. That's led many people to worry about their ability to seek abortion services in other states privately.

This article will explain digital privacy, how authorities can use it against you, and the steps you can take to reduce your digital footprint.

Does the 4th Amendment Protect My Cell Phone Data?

The fourth amendment recognizes the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Cellphone data falls under the fourth amendment protection. But if you share your information, you lose that protection.

To be clear: Any cell phone data you give to another party is not protected. Therefore, law enforcement can use your social media posts, geolocation history, and ISP internet search history to prosecute you for a crime, while they may have to obtain a search warrant to access other information of yours stored on the internet.

The "third-party doctrine" established by the Supreme Court's 1979's Smith v Maryland ruling holds that you do not have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" for any information you voluntarily share with a third party. In that case, law enforcement can request this information without a search warrant.

And there are instances when federal law enforcement can buy your data from private data brokers to get your information without a warrant.

Anytime you access your cell phone, it connects you to a cell site. Cell phone providers keep and record your cell site location information (CSLI). And law enforcement can access your CSLI with a warrant.

When Timothy Carpenter and other suspects were accused of robberies, Detroit police used CSLI as evidence they committed the crime.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2018's Carpenter v. United States, however, that the Fourth Amendment protects CSLI as "an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI."

Therefore, police must show probable cause to get a search warrant from a judge unless in emergency circumstances, such as the police witnessing a crime.

How Do I Protect My Reproductive Data and Privacy?

Even your most intimate and personal information is not protected in many cases. Therefore, if it is on your phone or computer, it can be subject to the third-party doctrine.

Since the overturning of Roe, there is growing concern that authorities could use period tracking apps, fertility calculators, internet searches, and CSLI against people accused of abortion crimes.

When a Mississippi woman gave birth to a stillborn baby, authorities arrested her for second-degree murder due to her internet search history for abortion pills. And an Indiana woman was convicted for inducing her own abortion due in part to text messages to a friend about abortion pills.

The Digital Defense Fund has specific tips for keeping abortion search services private. In addition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers security and privacy tips to protect abortion search data.

The most effective way to secure your digital privacy is to reduce your digital footprint and do not disclose personal information.

Eight Ways To Protect Your Digital Privacy:

  • Turn off location sharing: On your settings app, you can turn off your location sharing to prevent tracking of where you are.
  • Use encryption messaging apps: These apps prevent your messages from being monitored by hackers or third parties.
  • Avoid data breaches: Your information is at risk of being hacked. Use strong passwords and delete accounts you no longer use.
  • Don't disclose personal data on public Wi-Fi networks: Public Wi-Fi networks are not secure.
  • Don't log in with Facebook credentials: While it is convenient to log on a link with Facebook credentials, you are allowing that third-party app to mine your Facebook information.
  • Use a VPN: A virtual private network hides your IP address to make your online activity untraceable.
  • Only use secure websites: Look for https:// in the URL address to indicate it is a secure site.
  • Opt-out of data sharing: Don't accept cookies, especially those shared with third parties.

What Is the Government Doing to Protect My Digital Privacy?

There is no federal data privacy law in the U.S. However, proposed legislation under a bipartisan American Data Privacy and Protection Act limits companies' ability to track your personal data. Additionally, there is bipartisan support for the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act, prohibiting law enforcement from buying data from private data brokers.

What To Remember

Your cell phone data is not protected if you share it with or without your knowledge. It could be used against you in many ways. Take steps to protect your data privacy and consult a local criminal defense attorney if your cell phone data is being used against you.

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