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Warrant now needed in Florida to gather cellphone data

People who watch crime-related TV shows probably know that one’s cellphone can serve as a tracking device. Cellphones automatically stay in contact with nearby cellphone towers; those contacts, in turn, are recorded.

Police in Florida and elsewhere have found that by using such data they can effectively follow a person’s movements. This information can be used to either place a suspect in the vicinity of a crime or to contradict a suspect’s claim that he or she was nowhere near that location.

A recent decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, may make it more difficult for police to track suspects through their cellphone records.

The decision, which covers Florida and two other states, holds that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to how their cellphones record their locations. This means that police must first obtain a warrant before they can use cell tower data as evidence or risk having it excluded in court as the product of an illegal search and seizure.

Up until now, a warrant had not been considered necessary to collect cell tower information.

This appeals court decision is groundbreaking in that it is the first time that any U.S. Court of Appeals has decided in favor of extending privacy rights to cell tower data. It may also have further-reaching implications for other government attempts to gather cellphone metadata for use in surveillance or criminal investigations.

Anyone facing a criminal charge in Florida should not interpret this recent decision as a “magic bullet” when it comes to excluding cell tower data. As long as they obtain a warrant first, law enforcement personnel and prosecutors can still use that data as evidence. 

Indeed, in the underlying case the 11th Circuit upheld not only the criminal conviction but also the government’s use of the cellphone data it had gathered, based on a “good faith exception” it applied to the new warrant requirement.

Also, it is possible that the 11th Circuit decision will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may have a different opinion on the matter.

But for now, Florida police will need to take the extra step of getting a warrant before they can use your cellphone as an electronic bloodhound against you.

Source: Wired, "Cops can't collect your cell tower data without a warrant, court rules," Kim Zetter, June 11, 2014

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