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Texas judge says warrantless cellphone tracking violates Fourth Amendment, saga continues

Amar Toor, @amartoo
November 18, 2011
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Rev up the bureaucratic turbines, because a judge in Texas has determined that warrantless cellphone tracking is indeed unconstitutional. In a brief decision issued earlier this month, US District Judge Lynn N. Hughes of the Southern District of Texas argued that seizing cellphone records without a search warrant constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment. "The records would show the date, time, called number, and location of the telephone when the call was made," Judge Hughes wrote in the ruling, linked below. "These data are constitutionally protected from this intrusion." The decision comes in response to an earlier ruling issued last year by Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith, also of the Southern District of Texas. In that case, Judge Smith argued against unwarranted wiretapping on similarly constitutional grounds, pointing out that with today's tracking technology, every aspect of a suspect's life could be "imperceptibly captured, compiled, and retrieved from a digital dossier somewhere in a computer cloud."

The federal government appealed Judge Smith's ruling on the grounds that the Fourth Amendment would not apply to cellphone tracking, because "a customer has no privacy interest in business records held by a cell phone provider, as they are not the customer's private papers." Judge Hughes' decision, however, effectively overrules this appeal. "When the government requests records from cellular services, data disclosing the location of the telephone at the time of particular calls may be acquired only by a warrant issued on probable cause," Judge Hughes wrote. "The standard under [today's law] is below that required by the Constitution." The law in question, of course, is the Stored Communications Act -- a law bundled under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which allows investigators to obtain electronic records without a warrant. This month's decision implicitly calls for this law to be reconsidered or revised, though it's certainly not the only ruling to challenge it, and it likely won't be the last, either.

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