US Supreme Court Rules On Mobile Phone Location Data

Court case involving armed robber sees setback for American law enforcement in using historical location data

Law enforcement officials in the United States have been handed a setback in their ability to track suspects’ locations using their mobile phone data.

Under existing Federal laws, American police could obtain historical cellphone data that pinpointed the past location of criminal suspects without the need for a search warrant.

But now the US Supreme Court, has decided that police in future will be required to obtain a search warrant after the conservative Chief Justice of the court sided with four liberal judges in reaching the decision.

Supreme court

The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling will imposed limits on the ability of police to obtain cellphone data pinpointing the past location of criminal suspects.

According to Reuters, the court said obtaining such data without a warrant from wireless carriers, as US police routinely do, amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure under the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts in the ruling sided in favour of Timothy Carpenter, a convicted armed robber.

Carpenter’s convictions were obtained with the help of past mobile phone location data that linked him to the crime scenes.

Chief Justice Roberts said the ruling did not resolve other digital privacy fights, such as whether police need warrants to access real-time cellphone location information to track criminal suspects.

It also apparently has no impact on other police surveillance techniques.

“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” Roberts is quoted as saying.

Roberts said the ruling still allows police to avoid obtaining warrants for other types of business records. Police could also avoid obtaining warrants in emergency situations, Roberts added.

But the ruling means that the Supreme Court has agreed with the arguments made by Carpenter’s lawyers, who said that police needed “probable cause,” and therefore a warrant, to avoid a Fourth Amendment violation.

Carpenter’s case will now return to lower courts.

Privacy victory?

It is worth noting that while the ruling concerned only historical cellphone data, privacy campaigners are hoping it will signal a way forward in other cases.

Last September for example a Washington DC appeals court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before using a device that pinpoints a mobile device’s location, concluding that the device’s use otherwise would violate the US Constitution.

“Today’s decision rightly recognizes the need to protect the highly sensitive location data from our cellphones, but it also provides a path forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future cases – from our emails, smart home appliances and technology that is yet to be invented,” American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Nate Wessler, who represents Carpenter was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Meanwhile on this side of the pond, Privacy International in March this year launched a campaign over increasing concerns about the use of ‘phone data extraction tools’ by British police.

It said these tools enables police forces to download all of the content and data from people’s phones, including suspects, witnesses and even victims, without their knowledge.

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