Senators Question DOJ’s Surveillance of Americans’ Cell Phone Location Records

Attorney General William Barr

Attorney General William Barr Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Lawmakers want the attorney general to explain how the collection of cellular location data has changed following a recent SCOTUS decision.

A bipartisan group of senators questioned the Justice Department this week regarding how the government’s treatment of cellphone-generated location data in national security cases has changed in lieu of the Supreme Court decision in Carpenter v. United States last June.  

The Carpenter case addressed the application of the Fourth Amendment to cell-site location information, or CSLI, which are geolocation records produced by users’ cell phones communicating with cell towers and stored by wireless providers. The court held that because CSLI provides “an intimate window into a person’s life,” police must obtain a warrant to collect it.  

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., penned a letter to recently appointed Attorney General William Barr probing his views on the broad collection of cellular metadata and asking a series of questions encompassing how the Carpenter decision has impacted the practices and policies of government surveillance.

“In light of the Carpenter decision and the recognition of Americans’ legitimate interest in privacy around CSLI, the American public deserves to know how the intelligence community treats these records and other sensitive metadata in national security cases,” the senators wrote.

They also noted that during and after Barr’s confirmation hearing, Leahy asked his views on the Carpenter decision and the AG “did not speculate” as to whether he believes warrants should be required to collect cellular metadata. “Now that you have been confirmed as Attorney General, it is important to understand not only your views, but also how the Justice Department’s policies have changed in response to the outcome of the case,” the senators wrote.

The senators posed a series of seven questions including details on any legal authorities the intelligence community uses to collect CSLI or other data around the location of Americans or their phones. If the department did collect location data from GPS “pings,” cell-site simulator or ‘Stingray’ devices, cell tower dumps and others, the senators asked Barr to describe the court order or legal process the intelligence community used to obtain the data.

They also asked if the intelligence community, including the National Security Agency, “engaged in the bulk, domestic collection of CSLI” and whether the department has circulated any guidance on how the Carpenter decision should be interpreted.

March 30 is the requested deadline for Barr’s response.