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Court protects cell-phone location records
Published: 2008-09-11

A federal district court judge ruled on Wednesday that law enforcement officers need to get a warrant based on probable cause to use a cell-phone company's stored records to track a suspect's past movements, according to a statement released by the pro-privacy Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The ruling by the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania affirmed (pdf) a previous decision that found that officers needed a warrant to access stored location data. Telecommunications companies typically keep data on the base stations through which a customer's cell phone connected to make calls. While previous court cases have determined that law-enforcement authorities need a warrant based on probably cause to track a cell-phone user in real time, this is the first time that a court has ruled that the stored data establishing a customers prior movements are similarly protected, the EFF said in its statement.

"Cell phone providers store an increasing amount of sensitive data about where you are and when, based on which cell towers your phone uses when making a call," Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney for the EFF, said in the statement. "Until now, the government has routinely seized these records without search warrants ... we hope this decision will spark new scrutiny of the government's unconstitutional seizure of stored cell phone location records."

The extent to which the government and companies can monitor people's communications has become a major civil-rights issue. In July, U.S. President Bush signed a comprehensive update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), allowing intelligence officials to obtain a year-long warrant to tap international phone calls and Internet communications to a single terrorist suspect. Civil liberties groups' attempts to open up the process of obtaining such warrants have largely failed. International travel groups have warned business travelers that government customs agents currently have the ability to search and confiscate data from laptops and cell phones.

In the latest case, the court had asked for a legal brief from the EFF and other pro-civil rights organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU Foundation of Pennsylvania, and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) contributed to the Friend of the Court brief.

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Posted by: Robert Lemos
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