Appeals Court rules warrant necessary for cell phone location data

Law enforcement must now obtain a search warrant before seeking people's historical cell phone location information from their provider, according to a recent Court of Appeals ruling.

The case, United States v. Graham, surrounded the government obtaining two crime suspects' cell phone location data from their phone providers under a simple court order, as opposed to a warrant based on probable cause. One of the case's appellants, Aaron Graham, had 29,569 separate location data points turned over to authorities.

Graham and Eric Jordan were indicted for allegedly conducting a series of armed robberies in the Baltimore, Maryland area. The men challenged the district court's admission of testimonial and documentary evidence relating to their cell site location information, however. The data covered 221 days worth of information for both men.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that “the government's warrantless procurement of the CSLI was an unreasonable search in violation of Appellants' Fourth Amendment rights,” the court document stated.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who filed an amicus brief on the case, wrote in a press release that the decision reached the opposite conclusion from the 5th and 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In those rulings, the courts determined that the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect cell phone location information from warrantless search.

Calling the recent opinion a “full-throated defense of Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the digital age,” Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project said, “requiring a warrant for access to this information is an important protection against unjustified government intrusions.”

Greg Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Freedom, Security, and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in an emailed press release: “Of course the Fourth Amendment should apply to our location data. We take our cell phone with us everywhere and they can reveal the most private aspects of our lives – not only our daily routines, but also friendships, visits to medical clinics, and participation in protests.”

He added that the court's decision was “right.”

The case is set to possibly advance to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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