Feeds

Judge OKs warrantless tracking of suspect's cellphone

Surveillance in the digital age

The essential guide to IT transformation

Investigators seeking the location history of an armed robbery suspect's cellphone aren't required to obtain a search warrant before compelling the carrier to turn over the information, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision, issued by US District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District of Columbia, said the Stored Communications Act doesn't require investigators to get a warrant based on probable cause to access the suspect's location history pulled from cellphone towers.

The ruling was based on his interpretation of cellphone calls as “wire communications”. Under the statute, records involving those communications are subject to a less burdensome standard requiring a showing that the contents are material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The ruling, which was unsealed on Wednesday, came as a surprise to civil liberties advocates because it disregarded a federal appeals court ruling from last year that soundly rejected US government claims that it didn't need a search warrant to surveil suspects using global positioning system location-tracking devices. The appeals court judges in that case, known as US v. Maynard, said the surveillance of the suspect's movements were so prolonged and extensive that it was barred by the US Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches.

In his ruling, Lamberth said so-called CSLI, or cell-site location information, was significantly more limited and therefore the Maynard decision didn't apply.

“Disclosure of historical CSLI for limited numbers of specific calls, on the other hand, does not paint such a detailed portrait of an individual's life,” he wrote. “Historical CSLI like that sought by the government here does not provide a record of a cell phone user's each and every destination, or the length of time he remains there. Indeed, historical CSLI reveals only an approximate position from which a user placed a call, and is silent as to the duration spent in transit from one place or another.”

Lamberth went on to say that under previous court rulings governing wire communications, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers a customer dials using a landline. In the same vein, cellular customers have no privacy expectation for data their handsets transmit to nearby towers, he concluded.

Lamberth's ruling also sharply contrasts with a decision in a third case that held that CSLI provides such an intimate portrait of a customer's life that government investigators must get a warrant before obtaining it. That ruling, which borrowed heavily from Maynard, essentially found that cellphones were tantamount to tracking devices because they recorded a user's location each time he issued or received a call or text message.

Civil liberties advocates have warned that Lamberth's decision could erode people's rights to be free from unreasonable surveillance, should it be adopted widely.

“Using a cell phone, even if you know that the phone company has access to your location, shouldn’t mean that the government has a right to access this sensitive information about who you are and where you go without going to a judge and getting a warrant,” Chris Conley, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California blogged. “That’s especially true when your carrier knows where you[r] phone is any time it’s turned on (even if you’re not actively using it) and retains this information for longer than you might expect.”

The dueling interpretations of the Stored Communications Act and the privacy expectations relating to historical cellphone location data are sure to be repeated. As previously reported, the US Supreme Court has agreed to decide the Maynard case. Oral arguments in the case, which is now known as US v. Jones (PDF), are scheduled for November 8.

A PDF of Lamberth's opinion is here. ®

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

More from The Register

next story
Hello, police, El Reg here. Are we a bunch of terrorists now?
Do Brits risk arrest for watching beheading video nasty? We asked the fuzz
Snowden on NSA's MonsterMind TERROR: It may trigger cyberwar
Plus: Syria's internet going down? That was a US cock-up
UK government accused of hiding TRUTH about Universal Credit fiasco
'Reset rating keeps secrets on one-dole-to-rule-them-all plan', say MPs
Caught red-handed: UK cops, PCSOs, specials behaving badly… on social media
No Mr Fuzz, don't ask a crime victim to be your pal on Facebook
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Yes, but what are your plans if a DRAGON attacks?
Local UK gov outs most ridiculous FoI requests...
Felony charges? Harsh! Alleged Anon hackers plead guilty to misdemeanours
US judge questions harsh sentence sought by prosecutors
This'll end well: US govt says car-to-car jibber-jabber will SAVE lives
Department of Transportation starts cogs turning for another wireless comms standard
Munich considers dumping Linux for ... GULP ... Windows!
Give a penguinista a hug, the Outlook's not good for open source's poster child
UK fuzz want PINCODES on ALL mobile phones
Met Police calls for mandatory passwords on all new mobes
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
7 Elements of Radically Simple OS Migration
Avoid the typical headaches of OS migration during your next project by learning about 7 elements of radically simple OS migration.
BYOD's dark side: Data protection
An endpoint data protection solution that adds value to the user and the organization so it can protect itself from data loss as well as leverage corporate data.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?