AT&T asks for clarity in cell location data case

AT&T on Monday urged an appeals court to clarify laws that allow law enforcement officers to obtain mobile phone location data from wireless companies. 

In a friend-of-the-court brief in a pending case, AT&T suggested that the court should look to two recent Supreme Court decisions that found this type of location information "implicates significant privacy interests."

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The case in front of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals asks whether a warrant is required for the government to collect cellphone location information on suspects. 

Detectives investigating a robbery collected location data from a suspect's phone for 67 days. To obtain the data, authorities used court orders that required less scrutiny than the probable cause standard that applies to warrants. 

The AT&T brief explicitly notes it is not taking a side in the case, and its interest is in seeking legal clarity. 

"That uncertainty threatens to undermine both law enforcement and privacy interests and creates administrative difficulties and uncertainty for parties such as AT&T," it noted in the brief, pointing to the more than 100,000 government and private requests for similar information in the first half of 2014 alone. 

Privacy advocates cheered AT&T's brief, pointing out that the company suggested the government must take the Fourth Amendment into account when obtaining the data. 

The American Civil Liberties Union pointed to a central passage in which AT&T notes that mobile phones have become integral to people's lives. 

“Nothing in [past cases] requires that individuals must choose between participating in the new digital world through use of their mobile devices and retaining the Fourth Amendment’s protections," according to the brief. 

A three-judge panel on the court earlier this year found that the government must obtain a warrant to obtain the location information. The case is currently being appealed to the entire court. Oral arguments for the appeal are scheduled for early next year. 

“AT&T is doing a real service to its customers by adding its voice to the chorus seeking more robust legal protections for cell phone location information, which can reveal deeply private details of our lives," said Christopher Soghoian, the ACLU's principle technologist.