Court: No warrant needed to search cell phone records

A federal court finds that legal authorities need only a court order and not a search warrant to dig into a person's cell phone records.

No search warrant is required if law enforcement wants to track your whereabouts through your cell phone records.

At least, that was the ruling handed down by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Tuesday, according to The Wall Street Journal. Overturning an order by a federal judge in Houston, the Appeals Court found that your cell phone records actually belong to your carrier and are not protected by a probable cause standard as outlined in the Fourth Amendment.

Authorities must still get a court order to carry out a search of cell phone records. Those records can be used to track someone's recent movements. But such orders don't require the strict legal standards needed to obtain a search warrant.

"We understand the cell phone users may reasonably want their location information to remain private," the Appeals Court ruled, according to the Associated Press. "The Fourth Amendment, safeguarded by the courts, protects only reasonable expectations of privacy."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed legal briefs in the case, called the court's ruling "troubling" via a statement on its Web site:

This ruling is troubling because, as we and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued, only a warrant standard fully protects Americans' privacy interests in their locations and movements over time. Cell phone companies store records on where each of us have been, often stretching back for years. That location information is sensitive and can reveal a great deal -- what doctors people visit, where they spend the night, who their friends are, and where they worship. Given the sensitivity of these facts, law enforcement agents should have to demonstrate to a judge that they have a good reason to believe that they will turn up evidence of wrongdoing before gaining access to information that can paint a detailed picture of where a person has been over time.
About the author

Journalist, software trainer, and Web developer Lance Whitney writes columns and reviews for CNET, Computer Shopper, Microsoft TechNet, and other technology sites. His first book, "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time," was published by Wiley & Sons in November 2012.

 

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