Supreme Court won't hear appeal on privacy of cellphone location data

Privacy advocates wanted to challenge the use of that data in criminal cases

The U.S. Supreme Court won't rule on whether the government needs a warrant to collect cellphone location information, dealing a setback to data privacy advocates.

Attorneys for Quartavious Davis, who was convicted of a string of robberies partly because of phone location data, had appealed the case after a lower court ruled against Davis. The Supreme Court said Monday it had declined to hear the case.

Law enforcement used records from Davis's cellphone carrier, MetroPCS, to establish where he was during a crime spree in Florida in 2010. He was convicted and sentenced to almost 162 years in prison.

Davis's attorneys asked a federal appeals court to throw out his conviction, arguing that collecting the cellphone location data without a warrant violated his privacy rights under the U.S. constitution.

The Stored Communications Act allows law enforcement to use either a warrant or a court order to gather cellular location data, and in Davis's case a court order was used. His attorneys argued the constitution required the stronger protection of a warrant.

A panel of judges in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in 2014, though they let the conviction stand because police had collected the data in good faith at the time. But the government then asked all the 11th Circuit judges to hear the case, and they ruled that collecting the records was constitutional.

Cellphones can be tracked based on which base stations they connect to. The technique is not as precise as GPS (Global Positioning System) but can establish a subscriber's general whereabouts at a given time.

The digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation said it was disappointed that the Supreme Court declined to hear the case but that it expects the court to look at the issue soon in another case. Another federal appeals court, the Fourth Circuit, ruled in August that the government needs a warrant to obtain and inspect someone's cellphone location data over an extended period of time.

"As the government is able to track the routes we take through our lives with greater and greater precision, the question of whether the Fourth Amendment protects this sensitive and private information is one we should all be concerned with," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said in an emailed statement.

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