Cell Phone Tracking Laws and the Tracking Device Statute

Cell phone tracking has become a powerful tool for law enforcement and private entities alike. However, its use raises significant privacy concerns and legal challenges. Central to these discussions is the Tracking Device Statute under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). This article explores key legal cases involving cell phone tracking and the implications of the Tracking Device Statute.

Understanding the Tracking Device Statute

Enacted as part of the ECPA in 1986, the Tracking Device Statute (18 U.S.C. § 3117) regulates the use of electronic or mechanical devices to monitor individuals’ movements. The statute mandates that law enforcement obtain a warrant based on probable cause before using tracking devices. This requirement ensures judicial oversight and aims to protect individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Landmark Legal Cases

United States v. Jones (2012)

One of the most significant Supreme Court cases regarding tracking and privacy is United States v. Jones. In this case, law enforcement officers placed a GPS device on Antoine Jones’s vehicle without a valid warrant and tracked his movements for 28 days. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that this action constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, emphasized that physically installing the GPS device on the vehicle was a trespass and required a warrant. This case underscored the need for judicial oversight in the use of tracking technology.

Carpenter v. United States (2018)

In Carpenter v. United States, the Supreme Court addressed whether accessing historical cell phone location records required a warrant. The FBI had obtained several months’ worth of location data from Timothy Carpenter’s cell phone provider without a warrant, leading to his conviction. The Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that accessing such detailed and long-term location data without a warrant violated Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment rights. This decision significantly expanded privacy protections, recognizing the sensitivity of location data and the necessity of warrants to access it.

United States v. Warshak (2010)

Although not directly about tracking, United States v. Warshak is relevant due to its implications for digital privacy. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the government must obtain a warrant to access emails stored by an internet service provider, as individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their email communications. This case influenced subsequent rulings on the expectation of privacy in digital data such as location information.

The Tracking Device Statute’s Implications

The Tracking Device Statute, in conjunction with these landmark cases, sets a legal framework for the use of tracking technologies. The statute’s requirement for warrants is crucial for protecting individual privacy against intrusive surveillance. However, as technology evolves, new challenges emerge:

1. Advancements in Technology: Modern tracking capabilities, such as real-time cell phone location tracking and sophisticated geolocation services, test the boundaries of existing laws. The legal system must adapt to address these advancements while safeguarding privacy rights.

2. Balancing Security and Privacy: Law enforcement agencies argue that tracking technologies are essential for public safety and crime prevention. The legal requirement for warrants seeks to balance these needs with the protection of civil liberties.

3. Private Sector Tracking: While the Tracking Device Statute primarily addresses law enforcement, the proliferation of tracking by private companies for advertising and data collection raises additional privacy concerns. Legislation and court rulings continue to grapple with regulating these practices.

Future Directions

The evolving landscape of digital privacy and tracking technology calls for ongoing legal scrutiny and potential legislative updates. Several trends and considerations are emerging:

– Enhanced Privacy Legislation: In response to growing privacy concerns, lawmakers at both the federal and state levels are considering stronger regulations to protect personal data and limit unauthorized tracking.

– Judicial Interpretation: Courts will continue to play a pivotal role in interpreting the application of the Fourth Amendment to new technologies, setting precedents that influence privacy protections.

– Public Awareness and Advocacy: Increased public awareness and advocacy for digital privacy can drive policy changes and ensure that individuals’ rights are protected in the digital age.


The Tracking Device Statute under the ECPA, coupled with landmark legal cases, establishes critical protections against unwarranted surveillance. As technology advances, maintaining a balance between the benefits of tracking for security purposes and the imperative to protect individual privacy remains a complex but essential endeavor. Through thoughtful legislation, judicial oversight, and public engagement, the legal framework can evolve to address the challenges and opportunities of the digital era. Please don’t hesitate to contact our law firm to speak with a qualified internet and technology attorney about your legal rights.