ACLU, EFF Contend Government Needs Probable Cause & Warrant to Track Cell Phones

Jan 17, 2011 Print This Post

Organizations Seek to Defend Privacy Rights

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jose Medina, Media Coordinator, ACLU of Texas, (512) 478-7300 x 103; jmedina@aclutx.org

AUSTIN – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and American Civil Liberties Union of Texas have joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in opposing federal government attempts to obtain cell phone users’ historical location data from cell phone service providers without establishing probable cause and obtaining a warrant.

In an amicus (friend of the court) brief filed Friday in U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, EFF and the ACLU argue that absent judicial safeguards, the government’s ability to obtain detailed information about a person’s location using historical cell phone data may violate the Fourth Amendment.

Download a copy of the amicus (PDF)

“The government should not be able to track people wherever they go without showing it has probable cause and going to a judge to get a warrant,” said Catherine Crump, Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s National Project on Speech, Technology and Privacy. “The Fourth Amendment is meant to protect our privacy against exactly this sort of constant and invasive surveillance.”

Last October, Houston federal Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith issued an opinion rejecting three federal government applications to obtain the detailed information under the Stored Communications Act as part of investigations for which little is publicly known, holding that the government had to first show probable cause and obtain a warrant. The federal government appealed Judge Smith’s opinion. The ACLU and EFF brief urges the court to uphold Judge Smith’s ruling.

A favorable ruling in this case could encourage judges across the country to exercise their discretion as to when to require the government to obtain a warrant to get access to the detailed information.

“We’re all carrying tracking devices around in our pockets in the form of our cell phones, and without strong legal protections, any and every American’s locational privacy is at risk. We will continue to fight in the courts to ensure that the government must obtain a search warrant based on probable cause before secretly tracking a cell phone’s location, but the issue will not be truly settled until Congress updates our woefully outdated electronic privacy laws,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston.

“Texans value few things more than the right to be left alone,” noted Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas. “The government’s desire to have unfettered access to cell phone user data unjustifiably threatens the privacy rights of the millions of Texans who rely on their cell phones.”

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