AT&T Challenges Government's Warrantless Acquisition Of Cell Site Location Data
from the no-longer-BFFs,-apparently dept
AT&T, of all companies, has just handed in an amicus brief challenging the warrantless acquisition of cell site location data. At the center of this discussion is Quartavious Davis, who was sentenced to 162 years in prison for his involvement in a string of seven robberies, and his cell location records — 67 days-worth which were obtained by investigators without a warrant.
An earlier appeals court ruling found that cell location records are sensitive enough to be afforded Fourth Amendment protection. The government sought a rehearing and so there’s now an en banc rehearing of the case before the full slate of judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
AT&T has normally been very cooperative with law enforcement and national security agencies. This filing may look like a shift in loyalties, but what AT&T is asking for isn’t exactly revolutionary, or even in line with the panel’s previous decision regarding cell site location records.
AT&T said in its filing that it wants the courts to set a clear standard for the type of approval the government needs in order to obtain cellphone location data, and that it isn’t taking a position on whether the standard should be a warrant.
While this lack of solid stance may be only minimally encouraging, AT&T’s challenge of the government’s Third Party Doctrine rationale is a bit more weighty.
AT&T, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday in an appeals-court case, said the high court’s reasoning applies poorly “to how individuals interact with one another and with information using modern digital devices.”
“Nothing in those [prior court] decisions contemplated, much less required, a legal regime that forces individuals to choose between maintaining their privacy and participating in the emerging social, political, and economic world facilitated by the use of today’s mobile devices or other location-based services,” the company said.
This echoes the arguments presented by a few federal judges. While the government clings to the Third Party Doctrine and the assertion that the public “voluntarily” turns over this data, the courts have noted that the dynamic has changed. Cellphones are utilitarian at this point, and not some sort of purely voluntary luxury the public can do without. And what the public very certainly isn’t doing is creating a wealth of information for law enforcement and investigative agencies to access without a warrant.
What is most unusual about this situation is that AT&T has stepped up to oppose the government’s overreach, something it has generally remained largely silent on to this point. This about-face carries with it an air of resentment — the slightly vindictive act of a company that spent years greasing the government’s investigative wheels and got nothing in return but more demands and less respect and trust from the public it hopes to sell products and services to.