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Federal appeals court rules data stored on cell phones not protected

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that data stored on personal cell phones is not protected by the Stored Communications Act (SCA) [text]. The court determined that the act does not protect information stored on personal devices such as cell phones, laptops and personal computers. The lawsuit was brought by a former police dispatcher who was dismissed after photos and text messages on her cell phone revealed that she was violating police department rules. The plaintiff's cell phone was removed from her locker and searched without her permission. In its decision, the court explained that the SCA only protects "facilit[ies] through which an electronic communication service is provided" and not the device that is used to access those communication services.

Rapid changes in technology have left legal questions about the extent of digital privacy protection. The Senate Judiciary Committee last month approved a bill [JURIST report] that would prevent police from searching e-mails and other electronic content without a warrant. Currently, law enforcement agents only need a warrant to access e-mails less than six months old. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in September asked the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to reconsider a case [JURIST report] in which it decided that police use of GPS tracking on a person's cell phone is not an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. In July a member of the US House of Representatives released a report showing an increase in requests by law enforcement [JURIST report] agencies to access cell phone records from major wireless carriers. In March the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that a warrantless search of a suspect's cell phone to obtain the suspect's phone number is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Last year a federal court ordered the Department of Justice to release information [JURIST report] about when it had used cell phone location data to track down suspects in a suit filed by the ACLU.

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