Court: Police can't get cell-phone location data without a warrant

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that police cannot obtain location data kept by wireless providers without a search warrant.

In a split decision, the state's highest court said that while federal law allows law-enforcement officers to get a customer's "cell site location information" through a court order, Massachusetts law requires them to show they have probable cause to believe the information is directly related to a crime - a higher legal standard - under the privacy limits of Article 14 of the state constitution.

The ruling comes in the case of Shabazz Augustine of Dorchester, arrested in 2011 on charges he killed his former girlfriend, Julaine Jules, whose body was found in the Charles River in 2004 after, officials charge, he killed her in his Dorchester home.

State Police investigating the case had gotten a court order to get Sprint to hand over the location data for his phone for the two-week period around the time Jules disappeared. The trial judge in Augustine's case agreed with him that because police did not get a search warrant for the records, the information should be tossed as evidence.

The ruling is not necessarily a victory for Augustine: The court actually vacated the judge's decision to quash the records and ordered a new hearing to determine whether the troopers actually met the probable-cause standard in their initial request for them; if the judge determines they did, the records could still be used against him.

However, the ruling breaks new ground for future cases in setting a higher standard for such telephone metadata - the sort of records the NSA routinely collects.

Although some federal courts have ruled location data constitute "third-party records" for which a search warrant isn't needed, because it is not actually held by the person under invesitation, the SJC said that in Massachusetts, the stricter Article 14 applies. The court noted we live in an age in which cell phones have become so indespensible to so many people, "almost permanent attachments to their bodies," that while they don't control the records, they are as much as part of their privacy as papers they have in their pocket.

As anyone knows who has walked down the street or taken public transportation in a city like Boston, many if not most of one's fellow pedestrians or travelers are constantly using their cellular telephones as they walk or ride--as the facts of this case appear to illustrate. As people do so, they are constantly connecting to cell sites, and those connections are recorded as CSLI by their cellular service providers.

Turning, then, to the nature or function of CSLI, there is no question that it tracks the location of a cellular telephone user, which is the reason the Commonwealth is interested in obtaining it. Clearly, tracking a person's movements implicates privacy concerns.

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      Comments

      No surprise here.

      By on

      I have been trying to assuage the concerns of some of my more hard-core libertarian friends for years that a warrant would be required for this under Article 14 (the 4th Amendment to the federal constitution is just so passé).

      I now will have to read the decision to see whether my other feelings about the use of EZ Pass data will be vindicated as well.

      Tip of the iceberg

      Charlie card swipes, Hubway bike check-ins/outs, parking tickets, parking lot records, employer/residence security card swipes, credit/debit card use... At least no traffic cameras allowed yet in Mass (they don't reduce accidents).

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      You forgot the tolls

      There have been actual subpoenas in divorce cases in NJ at least (where they made the news) for EZPass records for a particular vehicle.

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      I didn't think it was a court

      By on

      I didn't think it was a court decision. I thought the MA legislature just never agreed to pass a law authorizing red light or speed cameras (except to enforce toll evasion and speeding through E-ZPass lanes -- that is, instantaneous speed through a toll both, not calculating your average speed between different booths).

      Location Data

      By on

      If you want to see all your location data in a tangible form, look up your Google Location History. Log in with your Google Account, and you'll see a map with pinpoints showing you where you were, when you were there, and what mode of transportation you took there.

      You can disable all this in Google Settings and in Google Now, and turn off your GPS, but it makes it difficult to get directions from the map and limits the functionality of other apps, so you do have to make tradeoffs for your location privacy.

      Decision Doesn't Limit Advertisers

      By on

      Just to break this down as far as I can read it:

      1. Puts no limits on what Apple, Google, etc can track, learn, keep and sell about where I go and what I do so they can separate me from my money.
      2. Puts new limits on police trying to figure out who murdered someone.

      Real helpful! Thanks!

      Are you really that big a fool?

      By on

      1) The limit to what Google or Apple can track, learn, keep, and sell about you is up to you and Apple or you and Google. You entered a contract with them in which they told you that they were going to track, learn, keep, and sell things about you including your location information. You don't want them to do so? Well, you should read the fine print. That is contract law between two private parties and has nothing to do with your state constitution-given rights regarding privacy from the state. Fools are easily separated from their money. So I guess that answers the question in my subject line, too.

      2) There is no new limit being placed on police. This is a judicial decision. The judiciary interprets the law and applies it fairly. The police overstepped their bounds. They acted without securing the necessary warrants to have the judiciary agree that their need for the data outweighs a citizen's privacy because that citizen is highly suspected of a crime. That limit has always been there and the police ignored it expecting that they did nothing to violate anyone's rights. They were wrong and the judiciary has shown them which side of legal/illegal seizure their attempt to get this person's location data is on. If you are really so worried about what Apple and Google do with your information, then you should be just as worried about what the government would do with that data too. This decision limits the government's ability to just go asking for your location information without having any good reason to do so as verified by the courts with each attempt to get your information.

      If this had been decided in favor of the police's actions, then anyone at any time could have their location data requested by police and they would have a reasonable expectation to receive it and do with it whatever they wanted. Sure, they wouldn't separate the fool from his money the way a company would...they'd just separate your freedom from your life instead.

      You're welcome.

      Might be a surprise Kaz....

      But some people trust the police more with this info than they do the companies who seem to misplace it, costing your average American more in money (and possibly privacy) than they might lose in freedom by the government trying to catch criminals (NSA issue aside)

      I think it makes sense that the government should get a warrant to obtain private phone records from a private company, but don't act like you are 100% correct with your constitutional law when this was a split decision in a state court, and further appeals may say something else (seeing the federal law already backs the government here).