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Cellphone data can't be collected without warrant, court rules

By
Doug G. Ware
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled in a 2-to-1 decision that government authorities cannot collect Americans' cellphone data without a court order -- differing from a previous decision that such activity does not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment. The issue may ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. Photo: ShutterStock / ProKasia
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled in a 2-to-1 decision that government authorities cannot collect Americans' cellphone data without a court order -- differing from a previous decision that such activity does not constitute a "search" under the Fourth Amendment. The issue may ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. Photo: ShutterStock / ProKasia

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.

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The case could go to the Supreme Court,, some experts believe, for a landmark ruling. Previous courts in the Third, Fifth and Eleventh circuits have ruled differently on the issue.

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.

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