2011-09-07 "Was Your Cell Phone Tracked? Justice Ordered to Hand Over Data" by Chloe Albanesius
An appeals court this week ordered the Department of Justice to let the American Civil Liberties Union examine certain cell phone records obtained without a warrant.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that requires the DOJ to turn over the names and docket numbers in numerous cases where the government accessed cell phone location data without a warrant.
"The disclosure sought by the plaintiffs would inform this ongoing public policy discussion by shedding light on the scope and effectiveness of cell phone tracking as a law enforcement tool," the court said in its decision. "It would, for example, provide information about the kinds of crimes the government uses cell phone tracking data to investigate."
"Disclosure would also provide information regarding how often prosecutions against people who have been tracked are successful, thus shedding some light on the efficacy of the technique and whether pursuing it is worthwhile in light of the privacy implications," the court continued.
The case dates back to 2007 when the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking the DOJ to make public the policies and procedures it used in obtaining cell phone data and other information.
"Everyone acknowledges that the government has a right to keep the details of particular investigations secret, but when the government adopts whole new policies that affect our society's privacy rights in very broad ways—that is something that should be decided democratically, and that can't happen if we don't even know what's happening," the ACLU said.
Not satisfied with how the DOJ responded, the ACLU joined forces with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and filed suit. A district court sided with the ACLU and ordered the DOJ to produce information related to cases that resulted in a conviction or guilty plea. Justice appealed, but the appeals court this week sided with the ACLU.
"Today's decision is a significant victory in the fight against warrantless tracking of Americans by their government," the ACLU said in a statement [http://www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech/aclu-wins-round-battle-against-warrantless-cell-phone-location-tracking]. "There is no good reason for DOJ to keep this case information secret, except to keep the American people in the dark about what its own government is doing and stifle debate about the new tracking powers the government is claiming."
The organization will wants information from cases that did not result in a conviction or guilty plea, but the court said "there are too many factual uncertainties regarding the remaining documents" so it sent that question back to the lower court.