Feds to Share Cell Phone Location Data Info Under DOJ FOIA Ruling

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 07, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) enjoyed another appellate victory this week, this time in a cell phone data dispute before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in which the court decided that the government must provide the public with information about how it used cell phone location data to track suspects without providing probable cause for search warrants.

Cell phones generate several types of data that can be used to track their users' past or present whereabouts with various degrees of precision. Concerned by reports that federal law enforcement agencies were obtaining such data from telecommunications companies without a judicial determination of probable cause, the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with several government agencies seeking information relating to the use of warrantless cell phone tracking by certain U.S. Attorneys' offices.

Specifically, the ACLU wanted case information on all past and present criminal prosecutions that involved targets tracked using mobile location data without a warrant, and the policies used in obtaining the mobile phone location information.

The ACLU sued the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2008 to compel production of documents relating to the government's use of cell phone location data in criminal prosecutions. The district court directed the release of certain specified documents under the DOJ FOIA request and upheld DOJ's decision to withhold others.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's order to release specified documents on Tuesday, but vacated and remanded the district court's decision to withhold some documents so the court could clarify factual uncertainties in the record.

Under the court's ruling in the ACLU's DOJ FOIA request suit, the government must disclose docket information in cases in which there was a conviction or guilty plea. The district court has been tasked with determining if disclosure of docket information in sealed cases or acquittals would compromise suspects' privacy rights.

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