Supreme Court advocates for personal data privacy, will require law enforcement to obtain warrants for cell phone location data

The Supreme Court on Friday passed down a decision that places new restrictions on the procurement of most forms of digital location data by law enforcement officials. In Carpenter v. U.S., Chief Justice John Roberts broke rank as he wrote the 5-4 decision along with the court’s liberal members.

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Timothy Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to 116 years in prison for a string of armed robberies in 2011 by the Eastern District Court in Michigan. Carpenter’s lawyers protested the decision, arguing the prosecution’s primary evidence in the case — Carpenter’s mobile location data — was collected unconstitutionally.

In an attempt to prove Carpenter’s guilt, the FBI was able to obtain cell-site location information (CSLI) from wireless carriers totalling “12,898 location points cataloging Carpenter’s movements over 127 days — an average of 101 data points a day” after being issued a court order but, crucially, not a warrant. Under the Stored Communications Act of 1986, this lower-level of proof was established in specific circumstances, specifically when it has been established “that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

With the proliferation of mobile devices, however, the implications of this ruling have expanded beyond email and SMS messaging. This rationale has been used by law enforcement officials to justify sequestering mobile location data from wireless carriers, in order to establish a digital timeline of a user’s movements.

Once again, the Supreme Court was faced with a difficult challenge where technology has developed more quickly than laws, and the justices found themselves establishing a progressive precedent.

Given the unique nature of cellphone location information, the fact that the Government obtained the information from a third party does not overcome Carpenter’s claim to Fourth Amendment protection,” Justice Roberts wrote for the majority in the court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court has asserted that just because the data is routed through a third-party does not nullify a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights.

OWI Insight: If law enforcement is held to such high privacy standards, it could become difficult to expect the federal government to continue its laissez faire attitude towards companies in the private sector that are interested in profiting from similar personal data. With states such as Vermont and California spotlighting pressing data privacy issues, it will be interesting to observe to what degree the Carpenter v. U.S. ruling influences the debates to come.