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Supreme Court scores a big privacy win for us all

The U.S. Supreme Court won big for digital privacy on Friday when the Justices voted 5-4 in favor of requiring the police to secure search warrants before they can collect location data and use it as evidence in trials.

The ruling was made in the recent Carpenter vs. United States case where the police used cellphone location data to convict Timothy Carpenter of armed robbery.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that phone location data are also subject to Fourth Amendment protections. This ruling also reverses an earlier decision made by the Sixth Circuit of Appeals.

This landmark ruling is yet another sign that the Supreme Court is trying to evolve Fourth Amendment rights to privacy to keep up with modern technology.

Carpenter vs. U.S.

The case of the Carpenter vs. U.S. case had its beginnings in 2011, when the police began investigating a string of armed robberies in parts of northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

One of the main suspects is a man named Timothy Carpenter and the police ordered his cell provider to turn over months’ worth of phone location data. Even without a search warrant, the cellphone provider complied and the police were able to follow Carpenter’s movements over the period of 127 days.

The data surrendered also included a list of all the calls Carpenter made during that period as well as his geo-location when he made the calls.

Now, the burning question that this case raised is this – Isn’t this phone data protected by the Fourth Amendment? Is it legal for authorities to obtain this location and call information without a proper search warrant?

Well, a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals judge earlier ruled that out, stating Carpenter’s cellphone location data are not protected by the Fourth Amendment (which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure) so a search warrant wasn’t required in obtaining the data.

The earlier ruling cited the Supreme Court’s Third-Party Doctrine, which states that no search or seizure occurs when the government gathers data that is voluntary given by the accused (Carpenter) to a third party (his cellphone provider.)

However, Carpenter successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to review his case and this led to Friday’s landmark vote and reversal of the earlier ruling.

Groundbreaking victory for American privacy

According to Chief Justice John Roberts, the government’s review of Carpenter’s cellphone records do qualify as Fourth Amendment searches.

He said that allowing the government to access Carpenter’s historical location data violates his Fourth Amendment protections and expectations of privacy because it gives the authorities “all-encompassing record of the holder’s whereabouts.”

Roberts also implied that our constitutional right to privacy should evolve with the technological advances of this digital age.

“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,” Roberts wrote.

The Supreme Court is not alone in its mission to protect our user privacies. Apple’s next iOS upgrade will also make it impossible for third-party companies to crack the code on your iPhone. But the new iOS version will also stop police from being able to get into iPhones during investigations and they are not happy about it. Listen to Kim explain how Apple plans to lock down iPhones in this Consumer Tech Update.

Government needs to evolve with our digital times

Carpenter’s phone data was apparently obtained via the old Stored Communications Act (SCA), which didn’t require the prosecutors to meet the “probable cause” requirements for a warrant.

The problem is that the SCA was enacted in 1986 when cellphones weren’t as widespread nor are they the powerful computers they’ve become.

The Third-Party doctrine, on the other hand, is even older and was enacted about 40 years ago. It is probably justifiable at those times but in this modern age of pervasive tracking, obscure user agreements and terms of service, this doctrine has too many loopholes to exploit.

For this reason, the Supreme Court concluded that the Third-Party’s doctrine shouldn’t apply to cellphone location data because “a [cellphone] logs a cell-site record by dint of its operation, without any affirmative act on the part of the user beyond powering up” – meaning a cellphone logs location data automatically without user interaction.

Summing this up, although it’s a narrow 5-4 win, this Supreme Court decision will set a precedent for cases that deal with historical GPS location data and sets the stage for other forms of sensitive information, as well. It is also a very good sign that it recognizes the need to review our privacy laws as technology and surveillance methods continue to advance.

What do you think? Is this landmark Supreme Court a big boost to user privacy? Or on the other hand, does it hinder law enforcement? Drop us a comment!

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