Is Cell Phone Tracking of Consumers Legal in the United States?

In the United States, cell phone tracking of consumers by private entities such as businesses or advertisers without consent is generally illegal and considered a violation of privacy laws. However, there are some exceptions, such as when the tracking is done with explicit consent or when it’s conducted by law enforcement agencies with proper legal authority, such as a warrant.

Consumer tracking is a complex area of law that involves various federal and state regulations, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Communications Act of 1934. Additionally, individual states may have their own laws regarding privacy and data protection. It’s important for businesses to comply with these laws and regulations to avoid legal repercussions and to respect consumer privacy rights.

In an age where digital technologies permeate every aspect of our lives, concerns over privacy and the protection of personal data have become paramount. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) stands as a cornerstone in the legal framework governing electronic communications and the privacy rights of individuals in the United States. Within the ECPA lies a significant provision known as the Tracking Device Statute, which addresses the use of tracking devices to monitor individuals’ movements.

Origins and Scope

Enacted in 1986, the ECPA was designed to establish legal protections for electronic communications and safeguard the privacy of individuals in an increasingly digital world. Among its provisions is the Tracking Device Statute, found in Title 18, Section 3117 of the United States Code.

The Tracking Device Statute specifically prohibits the unauthorized use of electronic or mechanical devices to track the movements of individuals. It applies broadly to various tracking methods, including GPS tracking devices, RFID tags, and other location-tracking technologies.

Protections and Limitations

Under the Tracking Device Statute, law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant based on probable cause before deploying a tracking device to monitor an individual’s movements. This requirement ensures that surveillance activities are conducted with oversight and accountability, balancing law enforcement needs with individual privacy rights.

The statute also extends its protections to private individuals and entities. Unauthorized tracking of individuals by private parties, such as businesses or advertisers, without consent is illegal under the ECPA. This provision aims to safeguard against intrusive surveillance practices and uphold individuals’ rights to privacy and autonomy.

Legal Precedents and Interpretations

Over the years, the Tracking Device Statute has been subject to various legal interpretations and precedents, shaping its application in different contexts. Court rulings have clarified the scope of the statute and established guidelines for its enforcement. In United States v. Jones (2012) 565 U.S. 400, the Supreme Court addressed the use of GPS tracking by law enforcement without a warrant. The Court ruled that prolonged GPS monitoring constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment and required a warrant, reaffirming the importance of judicial oversight in tracking individuals’ movements.

Similarly, in Carpenter v. United States (2018) 138 S. Ct. 2206, the Supreme Court addressed the use of cell phone location data by law enforcement. The Court held that obtaining historical cell phone location records without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, emphasizing the need for warrants to access sensitive location information.

Implications for Privacy and Technology

The so-called “Tracking Device Statute” serves as a crucial safeguard against unwarranted surveillance and intrusion into individuals’ private lives. As technology continues to evolve, maintaining a balance between technological innovation and privacy protections remains a pressing challenge. And, emerging technologies, such as facial recognition and geolocation tracking, pose new challenges to privacy rights and raise questions about the adequacy of existing legal frameworks. Policymakers, legal scholars, and advocacy groups continue to debate the appropriate scope of surveillance laws in the digital age, striving to uphold fundamental rights while addressing evolving security concerns.


The Tracking Device Statute under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act represents a vital component of privacy law in the United States. By requiring warrants for the use of tracking devices and prohibiting unauthorized surveillance by both public and private entities, the statute seeks to safeguard individual privacy rights in an era of advancing technology.

As society grapples with the implications of digital surveillance and the proliferation of tracking technologies, the principles enshrined in the ECPA remain as relevant as ever. Upholding these principles requires a nuanced understanding of technology, privacy, and the delicate balance between security and individual liberty. You may contact our law firm to speak with an internet and technology lawyer regarding your legal rights.