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.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

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.