Supreme Court Rules Phone Location Data Is Protected Under the Fourth Amendment


In a landmark ruling, Supreme Court has decided that the government will need a warrant if it wants to collect location or other phone data. The 5-4 decision has an impact on all kinds of personal information that is held by third parties, including location, browsing history, financial records, email, and text messages.

The court suggests that the Fourth Amendment guarantees an expectation of privacy. By allowing police to be able to track a person second by second is a kind of surveillance that should not occur without a search warrant.

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Carpenter vs United States: Warrants generally required to collect cellphone data

The issue arose from the 2010 Carpenter vs United States case where prosecutors used months of records obtained from cellphone companies without a warrant to prove their case. Timothy Carpenter was convicted of a series of robberies in Ohio and Michigan with the help of cellphone location data. Law enforcement used the data provided by MetroPCS and Sprint, pulling 12,898 different locations for Carpenter during the time of the robberies. In 2016, he lost an appeal at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, with judges ruling that cellphone location data didn't merit Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. Essentially, they said that the officers didn't need to get a warrant.

Last year, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Verizon, and other technology and telecom companies filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the phone data should not be accessed by law enforcement without a warrant or court order.

"That users rely on technology companies to process their data for limited purposes does not mean that they expect their intimate data to be monitored by the government without a warrant," the 44-page brief had said.

“No constitutional doctrine should presume that consumers assume the risk of warrantless government surveillance simply by using technologies that are beneficial and increasingly integrated into modern life.”

While today's ruling requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant, they won't be required in all cases. The chief justice wrote:

“We hold only that a warrant is required in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party."

It is, however, a landmark decision that protects the privacy of Americans who are tracked by law enforcement without them having to obtain a warrant first.

"This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans' privacy rights in the digital age," ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, said. "The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life. The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment's protections."