Surprise: Federal Court Says Warrant Needed For Mobile Phone Location Info
from the didn't-see-that-coming dept
The court actually lays out the issue directly, and worries about what it means if the government can just get this info without showing probable cause:
What does this mean for ordinary Americans? That at all times, our physical movements are being monitored and recorded, and once the Government can make a showing of less-than-probable- cause, it may obtain these records of our movements, study the map our lives, and learn the many things we reveal about ourselves through our physical presence.After going through the relevant (and at times conflicting) laws and case law, the court notes that while general location info may be public, rather than private info, a massive collection of such info seems to go over the line. That's especially true when the government can access multiple records from multiple people:
The cell-site-location records at issue here currently enable the tracking of the vast majority of Americans. Thus, the collection of cell-site-location records effectively enables "mass" or "wholesale" electronic surveillance, and raises greater Fourth Amendment concerns than a single electronically surveilled car trip. This further supports the court's conclusion that cell-phone users maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy in long-term cell-site- location records and that the Government's obtaining these records constitutes a Fourth Amendment search.The court also dives into the controversy over the third party doctrine, which basically says that once you "give up" information to a third party, you no longer have 4th Amendment protections over it -- and in this case, the government argues that users have given up their location info to mobile operators. The court notes that the third party doctrine does still apply to such info, but that it should not apply to cumulative records, saying that this is an important limitation on the third party doctrine.
This court concludes that cumulative cell-site-location records implicate sufficiently serious protected privacy concerns that an exception to the third-party- disclosure doctrine should apply to them, as it does to content, to prohibit undue governmental intrusion. 7 Consequently, the court concludes that an exception to the third-party-disclosure doctrine applies here because cell-phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in cumulative cell-site-location records, despite the fact that those records are collected and stored by a third party.Finally, and most importantly, the court makes a plain language rejection of the excuses often used by the government to pick away at the 4th Amendment:
The fiction that the vast majority of the American population consents to warrantless government access to the records of a significant share of their movements by "choosing" to carry a cell phone must be rejected. In light of drastic developments in technology, the Fourth Amendment doctrine must evolve to preserve cell-phone user's reasonable expectation of privacy in cumulative cell-site-location records.It's definitely a compelling and well-reasoned argument from Judge Nicholas Garaufis, and we hope that other courts will follow. However, we fear that he walks such a fine line in distinguishing this ruling from other cases, that it will be way too easy for higher courts to overturn this ruling.