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Court ruling: Warrantless cellphone tracking is illegal

Court ruling: Warrantless cellphone tracking is illegal
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There's good news on the privacy front!

An 11th Circuit U.S. appellate court has ruled that cellphone information, like connected cell tower location and time, is covered by the Fourth Amendment. This means that cellphone information is the property of the citizen making the call, and a warrant has to be issued to collect the information.

The Fourth Amendment was generally meant to cover physical property, but in some cases it has extended to cover communication.

"In the 20th century, a second view gradually developed," the court writes, "that is, that the Fourth Amendment guarantee protects the privacy rights of the people without respect to whether the alleged 'search' constituted a trespass against property rights."

Why is the information about cell towers so important? Because it could place an alleged criminal near or at the scene of a crime. So this court ruling is like a two-edged sword.

"While committing a crime is certainly not within a legitimate expectation of privacy, if the cell site location data could place him near those scenes, it could place him near any other scene," the court writes. "There is a reasonable privacy interest in being near the home of a lover, or a dispensary of medication, or a place of worship, or a house of ill repute."

But this step for digital privacy rights clashes with a previous ruling. The Fifth Circuit court ruled last year that cell records were business records and therefore the property of the cell providers to be used at their discretion.

These rulings don't conflict with one another because of separate jurisdictions, but the 11th Circuit makes an important precedence ruling that calls the Fifth Circuit Court ruling into question.

The 11th Circuit Court says that the cellphone users have a precedence of ownership in this case. Someone pulling out their cellphone to make a call has an expectation of privacy, and that the phone company only has access to the numbers they dial, not their location based on cell signal.

Because of this reasoning, the court rules that people are not voluntarily giving up their rights to privacy every time they pull out their phone to make a call.

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