Federal Court Allows Warrantless Cell Tracking

A federal court ruled on Tuesday that the FBI and other police agencies don’t need a search warrant to track the locations of Americans’ cell phones, a decision that sets a new precedent in the privacy versus security conundrum.

A Philadelphia appeals court ruled that officers needn’t get a judge’s signature to obtain logs tracking a user’s phone location, arguing that these types of records are not protected by the fourth amendment, which shields citizens from “unreasonable” searches.

The court still said judges may require investigators to obtain a search warrant, though it’s an option they recommended to be “used sparingly.”

The argument is in accordance with the Obama’s administrations assertion that Americans have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their whereabouts; meaning we shouldn’t expect where we have been to be a secret.

The decision is not an outright victory for the Obama administration, however, because lower courts can still require the government to show probable cause, which is the same standard as warrants.

According to Wired.com, historical cell-site information is retained for about 18 months by cell companies, and this identifies the cell tower that customers were connected to at the beginning and end of each call. The decision by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia allows the release of this information to law enforcement to be determined by district court judges—meaning the statute puts the issue in a sort-of limbo.

Also, the court admitted that it left the statute open for interpretation, so it remains that there is no clear nationwide standard for government access to this information.