01 Aug 2013

No Warrants Needed for Cellphone Location Info

Law enforcement won’t need a search warrant to obtain cellphone location information from mobile companies, a US court of appeals ruled (PDF) in a decision that further sacrifices personal privacy to state security.

This ruling brings forward the issue of how much data the government can access in the name of state security. Some states and Congress still believe a warrant based on probable cause is necessary before requesting cellphone data.

"In the case of such historical cell site information, the Government merely comes in after the fact and asks a provider to turn over records the provider has already created," the judges explained their decision. 

“Law enforcement is trying to keep up with technology, as well they should,” former New Jersey Attorney General Peter G. Verniero said. “The courts have to adapt, and law enforcement has to adapt.”

Problematic is the fact that the phone reveals a lot about the owner’s personal life, from daily routines to persons of contact, religion, shopping habits, political views, health or family ties. All these bits and pieces are too intimate to have strangers access at will. And they may become dangerous if the info gets into the wrong hands.     

“This decision is a big deal,” said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s a big deal and a big blow to Americans’ privacy rights.”