Federal Appeals Panel Rules Cell Phone Tracking Data Held by Service Providers is protected by Fourth Amendment

Monday, August 10, 2015
Cell phone tower hidden in a palm tree (photo: Yue Wu, San Francisco Chronicle/AP)

Law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant to get tracking data from mobile phone companies, according to a decision by a federal appeals court.


The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (pdf) Wednesday in a 2-1 decision that just because a third party holds information, it does not mean that it can be made freely available to police.


“People cannot be deemed to have volunteered to forfeit expectations of privacy by simply seeking active participation in society through use of their cell phones,” Senate Circuit Judge Andre Davis wrote for the majority.


The case was one of an armed robber whose whereabouts were traced over a seven-month period via data provided to prosecutors by Sprint.


“It’s great for us going forward,” Nate Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told The Intercept. “It’s a robust recognition of how much private information can be revealed through our cell phone records—doctor’s office visits, AA meetings…in the aggregate, it paints a strong picture of our lives.”


In a concurrence, Judge Stephanie Thacker acknowledged the changing privacy landscape brought on by technological advances. “As the march of technological progress continues to advance upon our zone of privacy, each step forward should be met with considered judgment that errs on the side of protecting privacy and accounts for the practical realities of modern life. At bottom, this decision continues a time-honored American tradition—obtaining a warrant is the rule, not the exception.”


The case is now likely to go to the Supreme Court.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Court Rules Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking Violates Fourth Amendment (by Jenna McLaughlin, The Intercept)

Stop Watching Them: Federal Court Squashes Unwarranted Cell Phone Tracking (by Jon Queally, Common Dreams)

United States vs. Aaron Graham (Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

In a First, Federal Court Panel Rules Collection of Cellphone Tower Data without a Warrant is Unconstitutional (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

No Warrant Needed to Obtain Cell Phone Data from Telecom Providers, Federal Court Rules (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Darren M. 8 years ago
In addition to tracking American citizens via their cell phones and GPS devices, the U.S. government’s spy agencies (FBI, CIA, etc) have another tracking method when an individual does not carry a cell phone and/or GPS device. They can track an individual/target by employing private contractors and citizen volunteers (INFRAGARD, private investigators, etc.). The government agencies can track the cell phones of these participants as they perform vehicle and pedestrian surveillance of a target. This allows government satellites to track an individual without a cell phone or tracking device in a moving grid at all times. Darren M. dewtarget05 AT yahoo DOT com 716-541-7062

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