The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Friday that police must get a warrant in order to obtain your phone’s location data over an extended period of time. The decision is a major victory for privacy advocates, who have long argued that the law has failed to keep pace with the amount of intrusive data we voluntarily hand over to private companies.
The 5-4 decision in Carpenter v. United States was narrow in both vote and scope as the court did “not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security.” The decision further bolstered a US citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights by updating them to today’s digital age, when mobile phones, laptops and social media, and the data technology companies gather, are a staple of life.
“The Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests but certain expectations of privacy as well,” the decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts explained, citing Katz v. United States.
“Thus, when an individual ‘seeks to preserve something as private,’ and his expectation of privacy is ‘one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable,’ official intrusion into that sphere generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause.”
Much of the government’s case rested on Smith v. Maryland and United States v. Miller from the 1970s, which each said a right to privacy that is normally assured under the Fourth Amendment did not extend to “third-parties” like cell phone companies.
In a rare occurrence, four justices filed dissenting opinions in the case, including the newest, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who challenged the “third-party” doctrine and the Smith and Miller cases being applied.
The court made the ruling in the case of Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in 2013 of robbing Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Michigan and Ohio. In order to build their case, the FBI obtained 127 days’ worth of location information for Carpenter’s cellphone – almost 12,900 location points – which they used to place him at the scene of the robberies.
The FBI obtained the data under the Stored Communications Act, which allowed them to acquire it directly from Carpenter’s wireless provider without obtaining a warrant based on probable cause. According to disclosures by phone companies, police across the country make these types of requests tens of thousands of times per year.
When the case was argued in November, the government’s position was largely based on an old idea in Fourth Amendment law called the “third-party doctrine.” The Supreme Court expressed that idea in a famous ruling in 1979 that allowed police to obtain without a warrant a list of phone numbers dialed by an individual. The theory underlying that decision was that callers surrender their expectation of privacy when they hand that information over to a phone company.
But Friday’s ruling suggests that that opinion doesn’t apply to cellphone location information, which the court considers more intrusive.
“The Government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s, not for a short period but for years and years,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts.
Friday’s decision was made on narrow grounds, and the court did not examine potential implications for other technologies, like surveillance cameras, facial-recognition technology, or other types of phone or internet data. The court also declined to rule on whether obtaining real-time location data from a cellphone qualified as a search under the Fourth Amendment, and left open the possibility that the government could access less than seven days’ worth of location information without a warrant.
The ACLU hailed the decision, saying it would open the door to updating privacy law for a range of technologies.
“This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age,” ACLU attorney Nathan Wessler, who argued the case in November, said in a statement.
“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.”