By Katherine Coviello and Ashleen Herrarte
BOSTON, MASS –The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that police are required to get warrants before accessing “tower dumps.”
Tower dumps are the practice of requesting information from all devices that are connected to a cell site, meaning that large amounts of data can be shared to identify just a few suspects.
According to the ACLU, back in 2010, the FBI was looking for a pair of bank robbers known as the High Country Bandits. In order to do so, they turned to cell companies for help where they got over 150,000 numbers in return.
Despite the fact that they were able to identify the numbers belonging to the robbers, it meant that the FBI also had data on thousands of people who were not suspected of wrongdoing.
“Tower dumps provide police with unprecedented investigatory power. This decision—the best on this surveillance technique to date—solidifies the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s role as a leading voice on privacy in the digital age,” commented Nathan Freed Wessler, the deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
By doing this, Wessler added, the legal standards around tower dumps are no longer questionable.
The ACLU argued, “Before, we did not know what law enforcement would do with the data of innocent people or whether individuals knew their information was being collected.”
The courts ruled that warrants must be obtained from a judge, even if each “dump” consists of small increments of data. Additionally, warrants are required to include plans for the “prompt and permanent disposal of any and all data” that does not fit within the object of the search, explained the ACLU.
“This is a groundbreaking decision that provides crucial privacy protections for people in Massachusetts,” stated Jessie Rossman, managing attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts.