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    Associated Press: Court: Judges can demand warrant for cell locales‎

    The Associated Press reports on a case concerning cellphone tracking. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion for In the Matter of the Application of the United States of America for an Order Directing a Provider of Electronic Communication Service to Disclose Records to the Government is here (pdf).

    Judges have the right to require warrants before police get cell phone records that could suggest a customer’s likely location, a U.S. appeals court ruled Tuesday in a novel electronic privacy case.

    The Pennsylvania case involves the government’s interest in records that show a caller’s location during past calls. Cell phone tower records can pinpoint a user’s location to within several hundred feet.

    Judges in a Pittsburgh drug case had insisted that federal agents get a warrant for the data. The usage patterns could show when a phone customer is typically home, at work or at some other location, they said. The government appealed, arguing that the 1986 Electronics Communications Privacy Act required only “reasonable grounds” the data is relevant to a criminal investigation, not the higher probable cause standard needed for warrants. […]

    However, the court stopped short of saying warrants are always needed for the cell phone company data. […]

    The 32-page opinion by Judge Dolores Sloviter suggests judges have the discretion, and can demand more information from the government before deciding if a probable-cause warrant is needed. The panel ordered the Pittsburgh magistrate to do more fact-finding “and give a full explanation that balances the government’s need (not merely desire) for the information with the privacy interests of cell phone users.”

    U.S. Magistrate Lisa Pupo Lenihan had demanded a probable-cause showing for the data in 2008, calling the information “extraordinarily personal and potentially sensitive.”

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief (pdf) and participated at oral argument in the case, has analysis of the ruling at its site.

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