The US Supreme Court has sided with consumers to expand digital privacy rights in a closely watched case revolving around location data. In the 5-4 decision, the court ruled that police must obtain a valid search warrant before obtaining location data on a suspect from cellular carriers. So, you do have some expectation of privacy while using your phone, despite the objections of law enforcement.
The case was brought by Michigan man Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted of a string of robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores. FBI agents obtained several months of location data from Carpenter’s cellular carrier, thus proving he was in the vicinity of all the robberies. This piece of evidence was key in his conviction, but Carpenter’s lawyers appealed on the grounds that law enforcement didn’t get a warrant for the location data. As a result, they argued that the evidence and conviction should be thrown out.
Lower courts ruled against Carpenter, but the Supreme Court found that law enforcement does need a warrant to access mobile location information. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s four left-leaning Justices to secure the privacy win. In his majority opinion, Roberts suggests that cell phones have become almost a “feature of human anatomy.” Your phone goes everywhere that you go, so providing unfettered access to location data from that phone to police is a violation of Fourth Amendment protections. It would be no different than attaching an ankle monitor to the suspect.
The basis for past rulings was a 38-year-old Supreme Court case that found people didn’t have a reasonable expectation that their phone call records would be kept private because they were retained for billing purposes. Could that same logic apply to your location? The Justice Department argued in the case that your location information is not private because your carrier is already collecting it. Network-level location data isn’t as accurate as GPS, but it’s necessary for the carrier to ensure you’re connected to the right tower to place calls and access data.
Lower courts accepted the Justice Department’s rationale, but the Supreme Court has had the final word. Police will now need to obtain a warrant before getting location data from your mobile carrier. The court has also ruled in recent years that police need a warrant to search through your phone or attach a GPS tracking device to your vehicle. If you’re worried about privacy, things are moving in the right direction.