A US court has ruled that police don’t need a warrant in order to obtain a person’s movements from their mobile phone.

The ruling issues a serious blow to privacy campaigners, as it allows police to obtain the user’s phone movements from mobile operators, without going through any legal channels.

Court Ruling

The order was issued on Tuesday by an appeals court, namely the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

According to Reuters, the judges voted 12-3 in favour, citing the fact that the US government can already collect third-party data, as it had already been disclosed to a third party, in this case a telephone company.

The new ruling therefore will allow police to obtain “cell site” location information – or CSLI, without the need for a search warrant. The police will be able to therefore trace the long-term movements of a suspect’s mobile phone.

Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, writing for the majority of judges, said that obtaining cell-site information did not violate the protection against unreasonable searches found in the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. They said that this was because most of the judges felt that mobile users are generally aware they are voluntarily sharing such data with their service provider.

“The Supreme Court may in the future limit, or even eliminate, the third-party doctrine. Congress may act to require a warrant for CSLI. But without a change in controlling law, we cannot conclude that the Government violated the Fourth Amendment in this case,” Judge Motz wrote.

The ruling comes after a number of armed robberies in Baltimore and Baltimore County, Maryland, carried out by Aaron Graham and Eric Jordan in 2011. Both men were convicted of the crime, thanks in part to 221 days of cellphone data that police had obtained from wireless provider Sprint. This data reportedly included about 29,000 location records for the defendants, which placed them in the vicinity of the robberies.

“Anyone who has stepped outside to ‘get a signal,’ or has warned a caller of a potential loss of service before entering an elevator, understands, on some level, that location matters,” Motz was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Unaware Users

But not all the judges agreed, with Judge James Wynn slamming the “extraordinary breadth” of the majority decision. Judge Wynn also felt that CSLI is different from other data because it is not “voluntarily conveyed” by phone users. He felt that mobile users are likely unaware of it, and unaware they are providing it or even know which particular cell towers they are using.

“The 4th Circuit’s decision is not the last word on this issue,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the ACLU told ABC News. “Other appellate courts will surely address these questions soon, and the Supreme Court may well need to weigh in.”

The court’s ruling overturned an August 2015 decision which ruled that the government needed a warrant to access archived cell-site location information. But when that vote was declared, they agreed to rehear the case with all 15 judges participating.

This time last year it was revealed that mobile phone users in the United Kingdom were being actively tracked by the police and other organisations.

Indeed, over 20 such fake cell towers were discovered in London over a three week period, but the Met Police refused to confirm or deny the revelation.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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