Court: Police Don't Need Warrants to Track Cellphones

Wednesday, 31 Jul 2013 02:06 PM

By Courtney Coren

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Police do not need a probable cause warrant to use a person's cellphone to track the location of a suspect, a divided federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in a 2-1 decision that police and other authorities may use the location provided by cell-towers to find criminal suspects.

The court said that differs from installing a GPS device to a suspect vehicle, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional without a warrant, because affixing the device amounted to a search, Wired reports.

Cell-phone tracking, the 5th Circuit ruled, is okay because the government is not collecting the data, but it is "a business record" owned by the cellphone service provider.

"Cell site information is clearly a business record," the 5th Circuit wrote in its decision. "The cell service provider collects and stores historical cell site data for its own business purposes, perhaps to monitor or optimize service on its network or to accurately bill its customers for the segments of its network that they use."

"The government does not require service providers to record this information or store it. The providers control what they record and how long these records are retained," the court adds.

The ruling marks the third decision by a federal appeals court on the use of cellphone data by government authorities and whether or not it violates a person's right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Two federal appellate courts have now ruled in favor of the government that warrants are not necessary to access cellphone data, while a third court said it was up to the discretion of individual judges to decide if a warrant should be required.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue, but the high court rejected an appeal in June where the 6th Court of Appeals had ruled that warrants weren't necessary to track the whereabouts of a man carrying 1,100 pounds of marijuana from Arizona to Texas.

The American Civil Liberties Union is taking issue with the ruling and sees the use of cellphone data by authorities as a breach of privacy.

"This ruling fails to recognize that Americans do in fact have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location information," said ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. "Where you go can reveal a great deal about your life, and people don't think that carrying a cell phone around means that someone can get a detailed record of the movement for days or even months on end."

"The government should not be able to access this personal, sensitive information without getting a warrant base on probable cause. Unfortunately, the Fifth Circuit's decision does exactly that," Crump concludes.

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