privacy rights

NJ Supreme Court weighs privacy rights of cell phone users

by ANTHONY CAMPISI, NorthJersey.com  |  published on February 3, 2013

In a country with more cellphones than people, courts in recent years have struggled to catch up to a world in which people are increasingly tied to high-tech electronic devices that are capable of tracking their every move.

The state Supreme Court took up a closely watched case Tuesday that could take a major step toward defining a new set of privacy rights for the digital age. Privacy activists have asked the court to require police to obtain a search warrant before accessing information that could be used to track cellphone users’ movements.

Though courts and police departments across the country have yet to come to a consensus on what protections cellphone data should be accorded, advocates hope the court will assign the highest level of protection – beyond what’s afforded to utility, bank and Internet records – and set an important national precedent that builds on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that significantly expanded electronic privacy.

Current technology allows cellphone providers to track users’ movements “down to a room,” said Alan Butler, an attorney for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of several privacy groups that have joined the case.

“Cellphone tracking in New Jersey is not theoretical, uncommon or exaggerated,” argued Alison S. Perrone, the court-appointed attorney for Thomas W. Earls, whom the Middletown police arrested in Howell on burglary charges in 2006 after obtaining information about his location from his cellphone carrier. Earls pleaded guilty in 2007.

Perrone noted that an analysis by the state Attorney General’s Office found county prosecutors requested the data nearly 600 times over the six-month period from June to November of last year.

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