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8 Ways Police Can Spy on You Without a Warrant

There are plenty of ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day.
 
 
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The U.S. government isn’t allowed to wiretap American citizens without a warrant from a judge. But there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day. Authorities can often obtain your emails and texts by going to Google or AT&T with a simple subpoena. Usually you won’t even be notified.The Senate last week  took a step toward updating privacy protection for emails, but it's likely the issue will be kicked to the next Congress. Meantime, here’s how police can track you without a warrant now:

1. Phone Records: Who You Called, When You Call 

How they get it

Listening to your phone calls without a judge's warrant is illegal if you're a U.S. citizen. But police don't need a warrant — which requires  showing "probable cause" of a crime — to get just the numbers you called and when you called them, as well as incoming calls, from phone carriers. Instead, police can get courts to sign off on a subpoena, which only requires that  the data they're after is relevant to an investigation — a  lesser standard of evidence.

What the law says

Police can get phone records without a warrant thanks to  Smith v. Maryland, a Supreme Court ruling in 1979, which found that the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure doesn't apply to a list of phone numbers. The New York Times  reported last week that the New York's police department "has quietly amassed a trove" of call records by routinely issuing subpoenas for them from phones that had been reported stolen. According to The Times, the records "could conceivably be used for any investigative purpose."

2. Location Data: Your phone is a tracker

How they get it

Many cell phone carriers provide authorities with a phone's location and may charge a fee for doing so. Cell towers  track where your phone is at any moment; so can the GPS features in some smartphones. The major cell carriers, including Verizon and AT&T, responded to  at least 1.3 million law enforcement requests for cell phone locations, text messages and other data in 2011. Internet service providers can also provide location data that tracks users via their computer's IP address — a unique number assigned to each computer.

 

What the law says

 

Many courts have ruled that police don't need a warrant from a judge to  get cell phone location data. They only have to show that, under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA), the data contains "specific and articulable facts" related to an investigation — again, a lesser standard than probable cause.  Delaware, Maryland and Oklahoma have proposed laws that would require police to obtain a warrant for location data; Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a Democrat, vetoed a similar bill in September. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill championed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to update the ECPA, but it would not change how location data is treated.

3. IP Addresses: What computers you use

 

 

How they get it

 

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other webmail providers accumulate massive amounts of data about our digital wanderings. A warrant is needed for access to some emails (see below), but not for the IP addresses of the computers used to log into your mail account or surf the Web. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, those records are kept for at least a year.

 
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