Federal Judge: No Warrant? No Cell Phone Location Data

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A Federal court judge has done his part to fend off an Orwellian future, ruling that the government can’t collect citizens’ cell phone location data without a warrant.

The government had ordered Verizon Wireless to hand over 113 days worth of cell site location data for a criminal suspect without probable cause. In its argument, the government cited the Stored Communications Act, which only requires law enforcement to show that the data is “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

The Fourth Amendment provides privacy protections against this law in some cases, but law enforcement argued that when people use cell phones, they are essentially volunteering to have their locations tracked.

(MORE: Your Bill of Rights)

Judge Nicholas Garaufis of the Eastern District of New York disagreed, as noted by DSL Reports. From the full ruling:

“The fiction that the vast majority of the American population consents to warrantless government access to the records of a significant share of their movements by ‘choosing’ to carry a cell phone must be rejected. In light of drastic developments in technology, the Fourth Amendment doctrine must evolve to preserve cell-phone user’s reasonable expectation of privacy in cumulative cell-site-location records.”

With the government seeking an easy way to keep an eye on its citizens without a warrant, the parallel to George Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t lost on Garaufis, either:

“While the government’s monitoring of our thoughts may be the archetypical Orwellian intrusion, the government’s surveillance of our movements of a considerable time period through new technologies, such as the collection of cell-site-location records, without the protections of the Fourth Amendment, puts our country far closer to Oceania than our Constitution permits. It is time that the courts begin to address whether revolutionary changes in technology require change to existing Fourth Amendment doctrine.”

Huzzah. Wireless carriers make data collection incredibly easy for law enforcement, either with automated systems or staff departments dedicated to handling requests. In theory, that’s a good thing, because a fast response could help police track down a kidnapping victim or a fleeing murder suspect. But such easy access to citizens’ location history raises the potential for abuse, especially if no warrant is required.

This is a much bigger issue than that of Apple and Google gathering location data to improve their own services. Yet I doubt this decision will get the same level of attention.

MORE: Should the Government Need a Search Warrant to Track Your Car with GPS?