WASHINGTON — A US appeals court began weighing Friday whether police should be allowed to track suspected criminals through their cellphone signals without first obtaining a warrant.
Government lawyers argue police should be able to ask telecoms companies to hand over information showing the past whereabouts of their cellphone subscribers because they are not actively tracking citizens.
They also say that the information sought by police provides only a general indication of an individual's location at certain times.
But privacy and human rights groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) say the process is invasive and violates individuals' privacy.
They also argue it violates the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects against illegal search and seizure.
The courts have previously ruled against the government.
In February 2008, a court in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania said police must be able to show probable cause before they can obtain cellphone tracking information.
The government is appealing that ruling before the federal appeals court in Philadelphia and the case has attracted congressional attention, with senior Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy pledging to hold hearings on the issue.
In a statement, he acknowledged that legislation regulating how law enforcement authorities can monitor citizens are "woefully outdated."
"Congress must work with the Justice Department, privacy advocates and the technology industry to update and clarify the law to reflect the realities of our times," he said.
But Kevin Bankston, an EFF attorney, called on Philadelphia's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the 2008 ruling.
"If the courts do side with the government, that means that everywhere we go, in the real world and online, will be an open book to the government unprotected by the Fourth Amendment," he warned in an interview with CNET.com.
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