Appeals Court rules location tracking needs a warrant

Nate Swanner - Jun 11, 2014
Appeals Court rules location tracking needs a warrant

A court has ruled obtaining information on the location data in your device without a warrant violates the fourth amendment of the Constitution. In a robbery trial in Florida, part of the evidence against the convicted was his cell phone location data. Noting he made calls around the time and place the robberies occurred, the state could effectively place him at the scene.

The problem is, that wasn’t constitutional, according to an 11th Circuit Appeals Court. Their judgement noted “In short, we hold that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The obtaining of that data without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation.”

The court also says the defendant did “not voluntarily disclosed his cell site location information” expecting to have a “reasonable” level of privacy.

The problem was in how the location reports were obtained. There was never a warrant, only a court order that stated they had probably cause. To that end, the appeals court is effectively saying the case should not have been made on the grounds of location data. It’s not clear if law enforcement had sufficient evidence to get a warren or not, only that they didn’t.

Unfortunately, this won’t help the defendant. The court added “we do not conclude that the district court committed a reversible error”, which is tantamount to saying “you’re right, but still wrong”. This will prove a strong legal footing in future cases which deal with the same scenarios, but can’t help the man it directly affected this time around.

This is the first time a court has ruled warrants must be obtained before gathering location data information. We’ll see if this has any effect on future requests from various agencies to Google and other tech companies who know so much about us.


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