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Court Rules Warrantless Data Collection Constitutional

Authorities do not need a warrant to collect cell phone location records according to an April 13 ruling by a federal court of appeals. The decision prompted some to call on the U.S. Supreme Court to draw a line on data privacy.

The Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals issued a 22-page opinion in which the judges said the FBI's collection of phone records connected to two Detroit men was constitutional, The Guardian reports.

The case originated in the apprehension of half-brothers Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders. The two helped organize and participated in a spree of electronic store armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio between December 2010 and March 2011.

The FBI was able to place the suspects at the crime scenes using historical cell-site location information (CSLI).

CSLIs are time-stamped location data that is transmitted to radio towers. There are different methods of obtaining these records, but the most popular among law enforcement are historical CSLIs, or when law enforcement asks for the data history of certain cell phones numbers, according to The Atlantic.

Police do not need a warrant to request historical CSLIs.

Using CSLI records, law enforcement officials are able to piece together the whereabouts of a suspect during a window of time. Using this data, the FBI was able to prove that Carpenter and Sanders were accessories to the robberies.

With the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, Carpenter and Sanders contested that historical CSLI records should have required a warrant, and that the practice was in violation of their fourth amendment rights.

By a 2-1 decision, the Sixth Circuit panel disagreed, ruling that this was not a violation of privacy.

“Cell-site data — like mailing addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses — are information that facilitate personal communications, rather than part of the content of those communications themselves,” wrote Judge Raymond Kethledge, according to Fox News. “The government’s collection of business records containing these data therefore is not a search.”

Judge Jane Stranch agreed that the data collection was constitutional, but expressed concern that the “sheer quantity of sensitive information procured without a warrant… raises fourth amendment concerns,” according to The Guardian.

ACLU attorney Nate Wessler noted Stranch’s dissenting concern, stating that district courts across the country will have differing views on the matter.

"Perhaps the supreme court will have to weigh in eventually to set a consistent standard across the country,” Wessler concluded.

Sources: The AtlanticThe Guardian, Fox News / Photo credit: tm/Wikimedia Commons

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