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.

Filed Under: cell site, doj, location info, quartavious davis, warrant
Companies: at&t


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 11:59am

    EFF resources

    For additional reading, EFF has a page with links to more amici briefs in this case, including their own En Banc brief.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous reader, 21 Nov 2014 @ 12:42pm

    AT&T

    They need to step in line work with constitutional rights, for everything. I'm leaving after my contract expires. I hate having a phone company that just goes everything away.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 12:52pm

    AT&T isn't fighting this out of the kindness of their hearts. Remember the second feed to the NSA from AT&T's main feed to the backbone? they even got congress to make it where they couldn't be sued over it.

    The real issue here is AT&T's bottom line. Everyone was great with helping out the government for millions as long as it was hidden. Now that it's in the light, people are saying we need something else that grants privacy and you're not it. That threatens the bottom line and that is the one place they will pay attention to. Hence now they have suddenly gotten religion over some aspect of privacy.

    They are looking at long range trends and the picture isn't good for that aspect. Mainly because all their customers as well as their future customers are pissed enough they will do something about it and that will mean loss of income for AT&T.

    Make no mistake, this is not about principals.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 1:21pm

    I wonder if this has anything to do with the Title II advocacy from Obama.

    No, seriously. AT&T probably has a particularly cozy relationship with the government. Maybe they're trying to convey that if they won't play ball with them, neither will AT&T?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    ivanwolf (profile), 21 Nov 2014 @ 1:49pm

    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.

    Translation
    We just want to know if we can keep accepting post it notes from the FBI and DEA for this kind of records request.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 2:57pm

    Ma Bell has round heels

    when the govt comes callin'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 4:08pm

    OK AT&T if you are not cool with government surveillance, I eagerly await the day that telecom immunity expires...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    tqk (profile), 21 Nov 2014 @ 4:23pm

    Re:

    Make no mistake, this is not about principals.

    Not a problem. I don't expect machines to have ethics or morality. That's our job. AT&T is a machine for making money (and paying taxes) from legally provided services people are willing to buy from them instead of their competitors.

    If the NSA's antics are interfering with that and leading potential or existing customers to question buying AT&T's services, this's exactly what I expect of them.

    This's good news. A corporation sticking to its knitting. Very much better than the NSLs on sticky notes era.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    tqk (profile), 21 Nov 2014 @ 4:28pm

    Re: Ma Bell has round heels

    Looked at a pair of shoes lately? Round heels are standard right out of the factory. Methinks that meme's dead.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Bergman (profile), 21 Nov 2014 @ 6:47pm

    Re:

    More accurately: We want to know if we can be sued for giving away data we shouldn't have.

    If the government jumps through the right hoops, AT&T cannot be sued for complying with the law. But if the government does not meet those requirements and AT&T capitulates anyway, AT&T COULD be sued for the data breach.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 7:16pm

    I'm interested in the court's ruling on this case. I read wireless service providers ping your cellphone's location every 7 minutes, 24/7. All those pings can paint a clear picture of someone's life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2014 @ 4:12am

    Re: Re:

    AT&T demanded and got a get out of being sued for a split feed of their internet to the NSA during the days of George Bush, through an act of congress. So AT&T has no worries in that aspect. That came about right after it was told to media that AT&T had secret rooms with a split straight off their main trunk lines to the NSA.

    What AT&T is after now, is another guaranty they won't be sued as all this stuff with the NSA goes south after the Snowden releases. They made plenty of extra money off the NSA and now they want to make sure they keep it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2014 @ 4:23am

    WAIT........these laws were passed for "BOGGEYMEN TERRORISTS"........are they ALREADY using it like they promissed they WOULDNT but everyone KNEW they would, for DOMESTIC law......ALREADY...........well what a fucking surprise

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Dan J. (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 4:32pm

    Voluntary? In what universe?

    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.

    I'm a network engineer and I'm on call 24/7. I'm required by my job to be reachable at any time I'm not officially on vacation. My company provides me a cell phone and I have to have it with me at all times. There are many other professions with similar requirements. What part of that sounds "voluntary"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    tqk (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 8:27pm

    Re: Voluntary? In what universe?

    What part of that sounds "voluntary"?

    Devil's advocate: you chose to accept, and continue to be employed in, your job. Prima facie: guilty (IANAL, nor do I much fscking care about two millinea old dead language phraseology).

    Yeah, I know, how can civilization work when !@#$ like this is what "The Authoritays" focus on? I'm surprised when I see it functioning at all. I'm awaiting the revolution, and learning about youtube-dl ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMPL_ACKmHk).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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