WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday the government must have a warrant in order to spy on or obtain data from citizens' cellphones.
The split decision in United States v. Graham says obtaining cellular data qualifies as a "search" -- and thereby conducting such searches without a court order is unconstitutional according to the Fourth Amendment.
The Graham case stems from a series of robberies in Baltimore in which authorities attempted to pinpoint a suspect's physical location by using data from his cellphone.
In Wednesday's 2-to-1 decision, the court said ordering a cell provider to hand over records qualifies as a Fourth Amendment search because "society recognizes an individual's privacy interest in her movements over an extended time period.
"We conclude that the government's warrantless procurement of the [cell site location information] was an unreasonable search in violation of appellants' Fourth Amendment rights," Judge Andre Davis wrote on behalf of the majority.
"Cellphone users have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in this information."
The decision is a victory for privacy advocates who fear the government has too much authority in spying on Americans' cellular activities -- an issue that was compounded by Edward Snowden's disclosures last year that federal entities like the National Security Agency regularly monitor cellphone data of potential terror suspects.