Rights group demand police need warrant to access data

American citizens should be able to rest safe in the knowledge that no one has the right to pry into their digital records, where they have been and how long they stayed there.

The Supreme Court has just received a brief from the Electronic Frontier Federation (EFF) stating that this should certainly be the case. However, in the case of Davis v. U.S, prosecution evidence has been presented in the form of the defendant’s cell site location information – implicating him as the perpetrator of a number of robberies – which was obtained by the police without a warrant. The question now being hotly debated is whether or not a search warrant should be required to obtain this kind of information with the intention of presenting it as evidence in a trial.

“It’s time for law enforcement to recognize that Americans’ physical location information is sensitive, and private, and protected by the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures,’’ said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury. “Cell phones are an integral part of modern life and carry detailed information about where we go and when we travel. Many federal and state courts have already ruled that cell site information is protected under the Fourth Amendment. We are urging this country’s highest court to afford all Americans this important protection from law enforcement unless there’s a search warrant.’’

There may now be a review of the Davis case following conflicting court rulings over the issuing of search warrants to obtain historical cell site records. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit declared that there should be no expectation of privacy over this kind of information, and that therefore no search warrant would be necessary, there have been previous contradictory rulings from the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Considering the widespread use of mobile phones, the public need to be aware of just how private their digital trail actually is. A strong ruling from the Supreme Court is therefore now needed on this matter to provide definitive guidelines for both police and members of the public as to the correct procedure when using sensitive cell phone location information as evidence.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled in Riley v. California that cell phones hold vast amounts of private information, potentially the sum of an individual’s private life, and searching that data requires a search warrant,’’ said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. ‘’We believe it’s high time that the government recognize that cell phones not only hold our private data, they also generate data—stored with cell phone companies—about our private movements and travels. The government shouldn’t be allowed unfettered access to this information without first going to court and obtaining a warrant.’’