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In re Historic Cell-Site Location Information

Concerning the Constitutionality of the Government's Request for Historical "Cell-Site Location Information" Under Section 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act

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  • EPIC Sues Justices Dept. for Reports on Cell Phone Tracking: EPIC has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice for the release of reports on the collection and use of cell site location information. Modern cell phones 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. In Carpenter v. United States, 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 stated that it “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.” The case is EPIC v. DOJ, No. 18-1814 (D.D.C. filed August 1, 2018). (Aug. 2, 2018)
  • EPIC to Argue for Location Privacy in NJ Supreme Court: The New Jersey Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in State v. Earls, an important case regarding the privacy of cell phone location information. At issue is whether real-time location data should be disclosed by a cell phone provider without a warrant or a court order. EPIC Appellate Advocacy Counsel Alan Butler will present oral argument along with counsel for the Defendant and amici ACLU-NJ. In response to the Court's request for supplemental briefing, EPIC's brief outlined the current state of location tracking technology and argued that cell phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy under both the Federal and State constitutions. For more information, see EPIC: State of NJ v. Earls and EPIC: In re Historical CSLI. (Jan. 28, 2013)
  • Federal Court to Hear Arguments in Cell Phone Tracking Case: The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has tentatively scheduled oral argument in the first week of October for a current case, In re US Application for Historic Cell-Site Location Information, addressing whether the Fourth Amendment allows the Government to force disclosure of historical cell phone location records without a warrant. EPIC filed an amicus brief in this case, arguing that cell phone location records reveal private information and should be protected even if they are held by third party cell phone companies. For more information, see EPIC: In re Historic Cell-Site Location Information and EPIC: Location Privacy. (Aug. 3, 2012)
  • Law Enforcement Requests to Wireless Carriers Topped 1.3 Million in 2011: In response to recent letters from Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), nine mobile wireless carriers have provided detailed reports of law enforcement requests for user cell phone records. These requests come from agencies - across all levels of government - seeking text messages, caller locations, and other information in the course of investigations. The reports show that companies turn over thousands of records a day in response to subpoenas, court orders, police emergencies, and other requests. The volume of requests has increased as much as 16 percent for some companies over the last five years, and some carriers have rejected as many as 15 percent of all requests that they found legally questionable or unjustified. EPIC recently filed amicus briefs in the Fifth Circuit and New Jersey Supreme Court arguing that disclosure of historical and real-time cell phone location information violates a reasonable expectation of privacy and thus requires a warrant under the Fourth Amendment. For more information, see EPIC: In re Historic Cell-Site Location Information, EPIC: State v. Earls. (Jul. 9, 2012)
  • Court Orders Twitter to Disclose User Records, Denies User's Ability to Challenge Order: A New York judge has ordered Twitter to turn over user data for an Occupy Wall Street protester. The user challenged the order under the Twitter terms of service, but the court ruled that the user had no standing. EPIC recently filed a "friend of the court" brief arguing that users of cell phone services have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their location records, which are subject to the same disclosure rules as Twitter data. For more information, see EPIC: In re Twitter Order Pursuant to 2703(d), EPIC: In re Historic Cell-Site Location Information. (Jul. 3, 2012)
  • EPIC Files Suit for FBI "Sting Ray" Cell Phone Tracking Documents: EPIC has filed a FOIA lawsuit against the FBI for documents related to the Government's use of cell phone tracking technology, known as "Sting Ray.".For more than 15 years the FBI has used cell-site simulator technology to track the location of a cell phones and other communications devices. Cell-site simulators act like a fake cell towers and can be used to monitor and track cell phone users even when the device is not in use. The technique also tracks all individuals in a region, irregardless of whether they are the suspect in an investigation. Government attorneys have recently fought against the discovery of documents related to the use of these devices. In February 2012, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI, but so far the agency has not responded or disclosed any documents as required by law. EPIC has recently filed amicus curiae briefs in Supreme Court, and Federal Court cases related to Government location tracking. For more information see: EPIC: Locational Privacy, EPIC: US v. Jones and EPIC: In re US Application for Historic Cell-Site Location Information. (Apr. 27, 2012)
  • EPIC Urges Court to Uphold Location Privacy in Cell Phone Tracking Case: EPIC filed a "Friend of the Court" brief in the Fifth Circuit urging the court to uphold Fourth Amendment protections for cell phone users. In the case, In re US for Historical Cell-Site Data, the lower court held that the disclosure of historical cell phone location records without a warrant would violate the Fourth Amendment. EPIC argued that this opinion should be upheld in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision in United States v. Jones, because cell phone location records are collected without the knowledge or consent of users. The records in this case, EPIC argued, create a "comprehensive map of an individual’s movements, activities, and relationships, . . . precisely the type of information that individuals reasonably and justifiably believe will remain private." For more information, see In re Historical Cell-Site Location Information, EPIC: State v. Earls, and EPIC: US v. Jones. (Mar. 19, 2012)


This case presents the complex, but important, issue of whether the Fourth Amendment requires that a judge deny a Government application for historic cell site location information records under the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d). The Government frequently requests such records, and in the past courts have issued “(d) orders” requiring cell phone service providers to disclose them. However, in light of recent cases, some judges question whether such orders violate the Fourth Amendment rights of the cell phone owners. In this case, three of the Government’s applications were denied, and the Magistrate Judge issued an opinion stating that it would be unconstitutional to issue the orders without a warrant. The District Court upheld the decision when the Government objected, and now the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is set to rule on the issue. The Government relies primarily on the argument that cell site data is not protected under the third party doctrine, but that argument has been severely undermined by Justice Sotomayor’s recent concurrence in United States v. Jones.

The Magistrate Judge Held That Ordering Disclosure of Historical Cell Site Records Without a Warrant Would Violate the Fourth Amendment Under Karo and Maynard

In response to recent developments in Fourth Amendment law, the Magistrate Judge denied three separate applications for historic cell-site records under the SCA and called for further briefing by the Government on the constitutionality of the requested order. The Judge issued an opinion containing extensive judicially noticed “findings of fact” (fifty paragraphs) related to cell phone technology and tracking methods. The Judge concluded that “[t]he refinements in location-based technology detailed in the findings of fact have decisive Fourth Amendment consequences.” In re US for Historical Cell-Site Data, 747 F. Supp. 2d 827, 836 (S.D.T.X. 2010). Specifically, the Judge found that “[l]ike the beeper signal from the residence in Karo, cell site information permits the government ‘to determine by means of an electronic device . . . whether a particular article - or person, for that matter - is in an individual’s home at a particular time.’” Id. (citing United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705, 716 (1984)). The judge also found the D.C. Circuit’s “treatment of month-long GPS surveillance” in United States v. Maynard to be “instructive.” Id. at 838.

The Judge also held that “[t]he fact that the records are presently in the hands of a third party might be dispositive if they had been ‘voluntarily conveyed’ to the provider by the customer, but … that is not true of cell site tracking data.” Id. at 839-40. The Judge noted that the traditional “third party doctrine” rule laid down in United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976), and Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979), has been considered and rejected in the context of cell phone location information by the Sixth Circuit and Third Circuit. Id. at 843-44. The circuit courts found that such location information was not “voluntarily conveyed” by the default functions of the phone when it was turned on, or even when a call was placed or received. Id. The Judge emphasized that “[t]he assumption of risk theory espoused by Miller and Smith necessarily entails a knowing or voluntary act of disclosure,” which is not present here. Id. at 844. This is especially true where technology has dramatically improved over the last ten years, and customers knowledge has not kept pace. Id. Furthermore, during that same time period Congress enacted legislation specifically to limit “the carrier’s use or disclosure of a cell phone user’s location information.” Id. at 841 (discussing the Wireless Communication and Public Safety Act of 1999).

The Judge responded to the Government’s suggestion that Fourth Amendment concerns “are best addressed at a suppression hearing, after the search has taken place.” Id. at 840. The Judge noted that, “[i]f asked to issue an order that in our considered view violates the constitution, our sworn duty is to deny that application.” Id. The Judge also pointed out that “[m]urky areas of law like ECPA remain murky decades after passage for two principal reasons - a dearth of reported district court decisions to generate appellate review, and a regime of sealing and gag orders to conceal court rulings from the general public and affected parties.” Id.

5th Circuit Decision in CSLI

In July 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court decision and ruled that individuals do not have a constitutionally protected interest in location records generated by their cell phones. The court upheld the Government’s power under the Secure Communications Act to compel cell phone service providers to disclose location data to law enforcement pursuant to a § 2703(d) court order, finding that under the third-party doctrine individuals do not have an expectation of privacy in that data. “Because a cell phone user makes a choice to get a phone, to select a particular service provider, and to make a call, and because he knows that the call conveys cell site information, the provider retains this information, and the provider will turn it over to the police if they have a court order, he voluntarily conveys his cell site data each time he makes a call.” In re US, 724 F.3d 600, 614 (5th Cir. 2013). Regarding the preference of some cellphone users to keep such information private, the court found that “the recourse for these desires is in the market or the political process . . .” Id. at 615. However, the court declined to consider anything broader than that narrow question: “We do not address orders requesting data from all phones that use a tower during a particular interval, orders requesting cell site information for the recipient of a call from the cell phone specified in the order, or orders requesting location information for the duration of the calls or when the phone is idle . . .” Id.

EPIC's Interest in In re: § 2703(d)

This case represents one of the first major tests in Fourth Amendment doctrine post-Jones. Specifically, this case raises many of the same issues that Justice Sotomayor identified in her concurring opinion in Jones, in which she called for a reconsideration of the third party doctrine. EPIC has an interest in promoting the development of robust Fourth Amendment privacy protections in light of Jones.

EPIC has an interest in promoting privacy in digital spaces by upholding robust Fourth Amendment protections. Location privacy is an increasingly important issue in Fourth Amendment law as more devices store location data that can later be recovered, intercepted, or otherwise obtained by law enforcement or private parties. EPIC recently filed a "Friend of the Court" brief in State v. Earls, a New Jersey Supreme Court case addressing an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy in the location of their cell phone. EPIC also filed a "Friend of the Court" brief in US v. Jones, a Supreme Court case involving a Fourth Amendment challenge to the government's unwarranted use of GPS tracking technology during a criminal investigation.

Procedural History

The Government appealed the Magistrate Judge's opinion to the District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The District Court Judge overruled the Government's objections and upheld the Magistrate Judge's ruling. See In re US for Historical Cell Site Data, No. 11-mc-00223 (S.D.T.X. Nov. 11, 2011). Then the Government appealed the District Judge's order (and the Magistrate Judge's Opinion) to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Government submitted its opening brief in that case on February 15, 2012. EPIC filed motions to appear as amicus and for time to participate in oral argument on February 17, 2012. The Court granted EPIC's motion to file an amicus brief on February 20, 2012. Professor Orin Kerr filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the Government on February 22, 2012, arguing that the Magistrate Judge's opinion should be vacated for ruling on a non-justiciable issue. Various amici (Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU, and ACLU of Texas) filed a motion for leave to file a combined amicus curiae brief of 30 pages on February 28, 2012.

Legal Documents

Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas


Related Cases

  • United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 954 (2012)
  • In re Application of U.S. for an Order Directing a Provider of Elec. Comm'n Serv. to Disclose Records to Gov't, 620 F.3d 304 (3d Cir. 2010)
  • In re U.S. for an Order Authorizing the Release of Historical Cell-Site Info., 809 F. Supp. 2d 113 (E.D.N.Y. 2011)
  • In re Application of U.S. for an Order Authorizing Disclosure of Location Info. of a Specified Wireless Tel., No. 10-2188-SKG, 2011 WL 3423370 (D. Md. Aug. 3, 2011)
  • In re Application of the U.S. for an Order Authorizing the Release of Historical Cell-Site Info., No. 10-MC-0897 JO, 2010 WL 5437209 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 23, 2010)
  • In re Application for Pen Register & Trap/Trace Device with Cell Site Location Auth., 396 F. Supp. 2d 747 (S.D. Tex. 2005).
  • Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979)
  • US v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976)

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