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Warrantless Cell Phone Location Tracking Upheld by 5th Circuit

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By Betty Wang, JD on August 02, 2013 11:21 AM

Warrantless cell phone tracking has been upheld, at least when it comes to "historical location data" kept by phone companies, in a federal appeals case that was decided this week.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling, held that a warrantless search of historical location data (and other metadata) stored by cell phone service providers does not raise any Fourth Amendment concerns, The New York Times reports.

What does this mean?

No Fourth Amendment Concerns

The Fourth Amendment generally guarantees the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. So why did the 5th Circuit find that the Fourth Amendment wasn't even involved in collecting cell phone location data?

The rationale behind allowing tracking this information is that when a cell phone user makes a call, they are already allowing cell phone companies to know their whereabouts when they inadvertently consent to a signal from their phone being sent to a nearby cell tower.

Additionally, the courts also noted that the use of cell phones is "entirely voluntary."

Limited Ruling

As the 5th Circuit explained, private third-party service providers (like Verizon) can record and store data for a legitimate business purpose. They can then turn this information over to the government, all without violating anyone's Fourth Amendment rights.

Still, it is important to note that the warrantless search OK'd by the 5th Circuit in this case only applies to location tracking information from cell phone companies. It does not apply to the contents of your actual conversations or text messages.

The government's reason for wanting to be able to collect location data is, they claim, ultimately for the health and safety of Americans. Examples of drug trafficking and terrorist threats being only discoverable through tracking one's location via cell phone records have been brought up.

The 5th Circuit's ruling only applies to judicial districts within the circuit -- Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. There are two other federal cases involving similar issues still pending in other courts.

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