Texas judge questions tools that grab cellphone data from innocent people

The Wall Street Journal reports that a Texas judge is asking questions about whether investigators are providing courts with sufficient detail details on technlogies that allow them to grab data on all cellphones in a given area, including those of people who are most certainly innocent of any crime. Snip:
One of the investigative tools in question is something called a “cell tower dump,” which allows law enforcement to get information on all the phones in a given area at a given time.

In two cases, Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley rejected federal requests to allow the warrantless use of “stingrays” and “cell tower dumps,” two different tools that are used for cellphone tracking. The judge said the government should apply for warrants in the cases, but the attorneys had instead applied for lesser court orders.

Among the judge’s biggest concerns: that the agents and U.S. attorneys making the requests didn’t provide details on how the tools worked or would be used — and even seemed to have trouble explaining the technology.


  1. Of all the places for a judge to question such a thing, but then I did notice his name was Owsley, which I’m sure is only a coincidAnce.

  2. Surely we can work this disagreement out… Perhaps the feds could offer to use a version that spies on, and occasionally executes, the innocent for their operations in Texas?

  3. DOJ needs to have a refresher on the 4th Amendment.  Strangely enough, they think it doesn’t apply to them anymore.  

  4. About that “seemed to have trouble explaining” part.

    I spent some years (in Texas, by coincidence) as a federal officer (not a Special Agent, which provides pages of explanation for people who know the difference) and occasionally had need of a writ to enter and assume control of a business or home.  Most times, it was no big deal.  The issues were simple.  I did a write-up, sent it to our counsel, and they’d go talk to the judge (always Federal District Court, btw.)

    One time, though, things were sticky.  There was a possible issue with interfering with a criminal investigation going on elsewhere.  Our counsel handed the matter off to the US Attorney’s office to get the writ.  I showed up to the courthouse, spent 15 minutes going over the matter with the Special Assistant US Attorney assigned to the case and didn’t like the result.  The questions in play were complex and it was clear the SAUSA simply didn’t comprehend what was going on.  I knew I’d be called on to explain some things to the judge because there was no freakin’ way any judge should have given me a writ based on anything this SAUSA could explain to him.  When the SAUSA started to go into the judge’s chambers, I followed.  He stopped short, put his hand on my chest to arrest my forward momentum, and hissed “YOU stay OUTSIDE!”

    Not more than two minutes later, he came back out with my writ, all signed and ready.  There was no way the judge could have read a fourth of the application for the writ in that time period, much less understood it or asked any questions.

    That was over 25 years ago and I was still young(ish).  It was very hard for me to swallow the realization that certain statutory and systemic safeguards for basic freedoms had been reduced to a buddy system, where if you have credibility in front of the judge you can get them to sign anything in an ex parte setting, no questions asked.

    It’s nice to hear news of a judge who’s asking questions, at least.

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