Are you worried about the police following your digital footprints? Now you’ll be able to tell them to get a warrant.
On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that law enforcement requires search warrants in order to obtain cellphone location data as evidence. The justices said that collecting cell site location information (CSLI) constituted a Fourth Amendment search.
The case--Carpenter v. United States--dates back to 2010, when police investigating a robbery case gained access to 127 days’ worth of location data from Timothy Carpenter’s phone provider--12,898 locations in total, all without a warrant. He argued that such a vast gathering of data was protected by the Fourth Amendment, requiring police to show probable cause that he was involved in a crime before being able to obtain the data.
Once Carpenter was convicted at trial, based in part on the data evidence, he appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 2-1 that no search warrant is necessary under the Fourth Amendment based on the “third-party doctrine.” This doctrine holds that government generally doesn’t need a warrant to obtain information about a person from a company or another third party with who he/she has “voluntarily” shared it. So once an individual shares information or records with a third party such as a business, he/she gives up any reasonable expectation that the information will remain private.
The Supreme Court wrote:
“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information. In light of the deeply revealing nature of CSLI, its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of Fourth Amendment protection. The Government’s acquisition of the cell-site records here was a search under that Amendment.”
Due to the sophistication of modern smartphones and the immense amount of cellphone towers, this has resulted in a significant increase in availability and accuracy of cell site location information. Service providers store location data for up to seven years, revealing where a person lives, where they spend their time, whom they visit, and more.
This recent ruling is considered a huge victory for privacy rights. In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously said law enforcement could not attach a GPS device on the vehicle of a suspected drug dealer to track movements. Then in 2014, the justices ruled police need a warrant to search cellphone that is seized during an arrest.