The federal government is facing a new demand to turn over data from its cellphone spying programs, with the filing of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The complaint was filed this week in U.S. District Court in Washington by EPIC against the Justice Department.
The case seeks the release of reports on the collection and use of “cell site location information.”
EPIC explained that modern cellphones generate precise location records, known as “cell site location information,” that was often accessible to law enforcement agencies.
“However, the Department of Justice has never produced any comprehensive reports concerning the use of cell site data,” EPIC said.
The complaint cites the case Carpenter v. United States in which the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment protects location records generated and that the “police must get a warrant when collecting” cell site location information.
In the complaint, EPIC “seeks to determine the use, effectiveness, cost, and necessity in the collection and use of cell site location information so that the public, lawmakers, and the courts may have a better understanding of the use of this investigative technique.”
There have been lawsuits over the “metadata” cellphones generate and the ability to track users’ locations through cell towers.
The newest case has EPIC seeking the release of records related to DOJ’s collection of cell site location information. The organization previously submitted requests for the information but had not received a response.
The complaint states: “The Department of Justice has never released to the public any comprehensive reports concerning the collection and use of cell site location information. Unlike the use of Wiretap Act authorities, which is subject to detailed reporting requirements under [federal law], enforcement use of cell site data is not subject to any comparable public accounting.”
Noting cellphones have become a necessity and about 95 percent of Americans own one, the complaint emphasizes they “also generate precise location records that can track an individual’s movements over time.”
“Telecommunications companies routinely collect and store this data, and law enforcement has sought access to this data.”
Americans are concerned about their privacy as well as “skeptical about companies’ data collection practices.”
Law enforcement previously had collected location information without a warrant, the complaint explains.
“Several major telecommunications companies have released reports that include aggregate statistics about government requests for customers data. But these reports are neither comprehensive nor detailed enough to evaluate the full scope of law enforcement access to location data.”
Even requiring warrants to obtain information doesn’t solve everything, the complaint said, since “the legal regime for law enforcement access … implicates privacy interests of nearly all U.S. persons.”
People don’t realize that such data can reveal “a trip to a place of worship, attendance at a political protest, or a visit to a medical specialist,” EPIC said.