Wednesday, February 19, 2014

MA latest state to require warrants for cell-phone location data

The Massachusetts Supreme Court this week ruled that law enforcement in that state must obtain a search warrant to access cell-phone location data for extended periods. The Boston Globe reported:
In 5-2 ruling issued Tuesday, the state’s highest court clarified the issues, providing both a clear definition of the privacy of phone records in the digital age, and also affording prosecutors a road map to using those records in their case against [Shabazz] Augustine. 

The court said it was possible that if the data covered only a short period, then obtaining the records under the federal Stored Communications Act without a search warrant might be acceptable. But it said it was clear that in Augustine’s case, in which two weeks of data was obtained, the period was too long.

“The tracking of the defendant’s movements in the urban Boston area for two weeks was more than sufficient to intrude upon the defendant’s expectation of privacy,” said the Massachusetts court opinion, written by Justice Margot Botsford.

The ruling also makes Massachusetts the latest of several US states to set stricter limits on government access to citizens’ phone records.
Rather odd to suggest that it violates someone's rights to access two weeks of data but not short periods. Basically police can peek in on someone but not stare at them. Another Globe report noted that, "Massachusetts joins New Jersey as one of two states where courts have ruled that phone record searches require a warrant. Maine and Montana have passed legislation to establish the same policy. And before Tuesday’s decision, a Massachusetts legislator, Senator Karen E. Spilka, Democrat of Ashland, filed similar legislation."

The Texas House in 2013 approved an amendment 126-4 requiring Texas law enforcement to get a warrant to access cell-phone location data, but it was stripped out of the version of the bill approved in the Senate. This year, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst included an evaluation of this and other electronic privacy questions in the interim charge for the Senate State Affairs Committee, so one can expect the matter to be revisited when the Texas Legislature reconvenes in 2015.

RELATED: From the New America Foundation, "The Ever Falling Cost of Surveillance."

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