If a search warrant issued in the investigation into a string of southern Maine robberies is truly unprecedented, as one writer said, it won’t be for long.

Smartphones are everywhere, and they are constantly gobbling up information – not only calls, texts, social media posts and searches, but also the user’s every move. That information is useful to investigators in a million different ways, and if they can convince a judge to issue a warrant for the data, they’ll be happy to take it.


That’s what happened in Maine’s U.S. District Court in March. As first reported by Forbes, a judge, at the request of the FBI, ordered Google to hand over certain users’ personal data collected by the company’s phone applications.

What makes this case stand out is that the FBI was not asking for the data produced by an individual identified through other evidence as a suspect in a crime, but for anyone in the area of two or more of a cluster of robberies that occurred in the Portland area this spring.

Police and prosecutors argue that this is no different than pulling a log of all calls off of a certain cell tower in the area of a crime, or retrieving street-level security-camera footage.


And that is the argument we would expect them to make. By the nature of their work, law enforcement looks at the new technology and sees foremost the way it opens new avenues of investigation. After all, how can it be wrong if it makes solving crimes that much easier?


While police focus on the possible, however, it is up to people concerned about the future of privacy to talk about what’s appropriate, particularly as our lives become increasingly intertwined with the powerful devices most Americans now carry with them everywhere.

That discussion is needed, because the playing field has changed considerably in the last decade. A cell tower can tell police whether someone was in a certain wide area, while a security camera can give investigators a physical description of everyone in a very narrow zone of a public way.

Smartphone data provides mountains more information, and it is far more precise. And as the Associated Press reported recently, even if you think you’ve turned off location services, your phone is probably still tracking you.

That’s how these devices and the applications they run have been designed. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon – these companies and others like them exist on a business model that depends on you using their devices and services across every facet of your life. Every click provides them with more information that they can use themselves or sell to a third party.



So while users are reveling in how online maps, shopping and information searches make our lives easier, tech companies are working on how to get us to give up more information about ourselves.

At the same time, as evidenced in the robbery case, law enforcement will seek to push its access to this trove of personal information as far as courts will allow.

If those two powerful forces are allowed to set the rules on privacy in this new age, individuals will ultimately lose out. Before we know it, our information will be open to misuse or exploitation, as is bound to occur.

“Privacy doesn’t disappear all at once,” Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, told the Editorial Board. “It’s steadily eroded in increments that we may not notice.”

Without the voice of everyday people pushing for legislation and other protections, the price of using a smartphone – of participating in what is becoming one of life’s norms – will include giving up privacy rights as we know them.

If that’s not the kind of world you want to live in, now is the time to speak up.

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