In a show of “complete disregard” for privacy, a federal appellate court on Wednesday ruled that the warrantless collection of cell phone location data is constitutional.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. Carpenter that law enforcement can legally request cell site location information (CSLI) without a warrant on the grounds that routing data, which is not as accurate as GPS coordinates, is not protected under the Fourth Amendment.
But as Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in a blog post responding to the ruling, “The opinion shows a complete disregard for the sensitive and revealing nature of [CSLI] and a misguided response to the differences between the analog technologies addressed in old cases and the data-rich technologies of today.”
The ruling joins with previous decisions by other regional appellate courts that now means law enforcement in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee can obtain court orders for CSLI data just by showing that the records are relevant to an ongoing investigation.
Meanwhile, a ruling in August by a three-judge panel for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that police must obtain warrants for CSLI records, which require probable cause, a higher standard than what is required for a court order.
Regarding Wednesday’s ruling, Lynch explains:
The case at hand stems from a 2011 investigation into a string of robberies in the Detroit area. Two men, Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders, were charged with aiding and abetting after another suspect who confessed to the crimes gave FBI investigators his mobile device and phone number, as well as 16 other numbers linked to possible suspects. Agents then obtained court orders for several months’ worth of CSLI records for those phones.
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