Government may need warrant to access cellphone records

A federal appeals court has ruled that judges can force the government to get a warrant before accessing individuals’ cellphone location records.

Judges now have the right to demand a warrant based on probable cause before accessing the records, which show the user’s location at different times to within a few hundred feet. But the decision stopped short of saying that a warrant would always be required.

The case stemmed from the arrest of a man in a Pittsburgh drug case in which judges demanded a warrant before admitting cellphone location records as evidence.

But the government appealed, citing the 1986 Electronics Communications Privacy Act, which requires only ‘reasonable grounds’ for obtaining the data.

The court agreed that cellphone users still have a right to privacy, even though third party phone companies have access to their location. It rejected the government’s argument that the privacy of location records held by phone companies was never constitutionally protected. Because location information can reveal that people are at home, the judge ruled, they’re protected by the Fourth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, before an appeal court in Pennsylvania. 

“Today’s ruling sends a message that merely carrying a cell phone should not make people more susceptible to government surveillance. Innocent Americans should not be made to feel the government is following them wherever they go – including in their own home,” said ACLU attorney Catherine Crump.

“While there’s no question that law enforcement agents should have the tools they need to stop crimes, such tools must be used in a manner that upholds the Constitution and personal privacy.”