Earlier today the 5th District Federal Court of Appeals ruled that police do not need a probable cause warrant to access a person’s cell-site information. This decision overturns a lower court’s ruling that location data is protected under the fourth amendment.
There is a good chance this matter will make its way onto the Supreme Court docket. For one thing, the Court, which ruled in a 2-1 decision, was divided. For another, the nation is divided. Just two weeks ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that warrants are required to access location data.
This Court’s ruling is corroborated by two other federal Courts that also decided against requiring warrants. However, a third federal Appellate Court allowed judges the option to demand warrants.
While the courts may be indecisive, the authorities certainly aren’t. Police have used of cell-site tracking without a warrant extensively. The use became particularly prevalent since the Supreme Court ruled 18 months ago that police did need a warrant to affix covert GPS tracking devices to vehicles.
However, advocates privacy and civil liberty fear that cell-site tracking may give way to a host of other invasions of privacy. The use of tracking methods is sympathetic when the perpetrator’s crime is distasteful, such as tracking a kidnapper’s cellphone. However, access to cell-site information may allow other, less sympathetic intrusions.
“Where you go can reveal a great deal about your life,” says Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, “and people don’t think that carrying a cell phone around means that someone can get a detailed record of their movement for days or even months on end.”