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AT&T Makes 'Landmark' Move in Attempt to Restrict Police Access to Cellphone Data

"... Increasingly important in a word where private corps are holding vast quantities of our very sensitive and personal data."

The editor of an Ohio paper said Friday he was "shocked" by what military police officers allegedly did to his reporters. (Image source: Shutterstock)

Just days after AT&T announced it would remove "super cookies" from cell phone data, the cell phone carrier made another "landmark" move showing support for stricter rules on police cellphone tracking.

The American Civil Liberties Union announced that AT&T, "in a landmark move in the battle over privacy rights and new technologies," filed a federal court brief arguing that courts must account for people's Fourth Amendment rights before authorizing law enforcement to get phone location histories from their cell service companies.

Cellphone tracking In the case AT&T address with their federal brief, police secured more than 11,000 cell phone location records to track one defendant. According to the ACLU, that's an average of one location point every eight minutes. (Image source: Shutterstock)

The company is the nation's second largest cellphone service provider, serving roughly 3.5 million customers, and Nathan Wessler, ACLU attorney with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told TheBlaze having the large company participate in the litigation was important.

"AT&T filing this brief, and along with some of the other news about its policy changes, show that protecting customers privacy isn't just good policy, it's good for business," Wessler told TheBlaze. "And that's increasingly important in a word where private corps are holding vast quantities of our very sensitive and personal data."

According to the ACLU release, AT&T filed a "friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal of a criminal case, U.S. v. Davis, in which the government obtained four people's cell phone location records over a 67-day period for a robbery investigation."

“We have a right to expect that companies that hold great volumes of our sensitive data will protect our privacy,” said Christopher Soghoian, ACLU principal technologist. “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.”

Wessler told TheBlaze having recognizable companies like AT&T step and make statements like this is important to spread the word about how much data gathering is actually happening.

"I think members of the public are absolutely unaware, which is why it's so crucial for companies like AT&T are able to step up on behalf of their customers to argue for greater privacy protections," Wessler told TheBlaze. "Part of what this new brief recognizes is that decades-old traditional opinions about analog technologies no longer reflect the right balance in protecting people's privacy in this digital age."

In one highlighted case from June, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that police do need to get a warrant to get the location information, a first for a federal appeals court. The government has appealed that decision to the full 11th Circuit, and oral arguments are scheduled for February 24th, 2015.

“Use of mobile devices, as well as other devices or location based services, has become integral to most individuals’ participation in the new digital economy: those devices are a nearly ever-present feature of their most basic social, political, economic, and personal relationships,” AT&T wrote in its brief. “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.”

For one suspect in the case -- Quartavious Davis -- police got 11,606 location records. According to the ACLU, that's an average of one location point every eight minutes.

Davis was convicted based largely on the cellphone location evidence, and he appealed. Despite the court’s June ruling that the government should have gotten a warrant, the court allowed the conviction to stand because law enforcement had relied in good faith on the decision of the magistrate judge to issue a D-order -- the specific type of court order required to obtain cellphone data. According to the law, these orders must show "reasonable grounds" that the contents of an electronic communication -- or the location records or other data -- are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

TheBlaze attempted to reach AT&T to ask whether the two moves -- dropping the "super cookies," (which attached hidden Internet tracking codes to data transmitted from its users' smartphones, making it nearly impossible to shield its subscribers' identities online) and filing the federal court brief -- comes from a specific internal decision or customer feedback. The story will be updated if and when AT&T provides a comment.

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Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter 

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