The US Department of Justice has petitioned the 3rd District Court of Appeals for the right to request cellphone location data without a warrant.
While law enforcement agencies have been requesting this data from cell phone companies for years, the legality of this practice has always been a bit ill-defined. This case seeks to clarify the regulations surrounding this practice. DOJ spokesmen have said that this practice would not violate 4th Amendment rights because the records are already kept by cell phone companies.
Apparently, it’s not just Google that wants to know where you are now.
The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are both predictably up in arms over this potentially damaging petition. Kevin Bankston, a lawyer arguing on behalf of the EFF in this case, said that, “this is a critical question for privacy in the 21st century. If the courts do side with the government, that means that everywhere we go, in the real world and online, will be an open book to the government unprotected by the Fourth Amendment.”
Lower courts have ruled in favor of upholding privacy regulations. US Magistrate Judge Lisa Lenihan of PA ruled that the proposed regulations violated Fourth Amendment rights to privacy. She was also concerned “that location information can reveal sensitive information such as health treatments, financial difficulties, marital counseling, and extra-marital affairs.”
While warrant-less location requests would certainly make the DOJ’s (and many other agencies’) jobs easier, it’s hugely damaging for privacy. While it is time-consuming to get warrants, not doing so seems to violate the Fourth Amendment. Plus, if the DOJ really wants to know what a suspect is doing, they should just look at their Google Buzz profile.