The U.S. Supreme Court will consider a case that has become a privacy touchstone and hinges on whether law enforcement agencies need to get a warrant in order to track a suspect’s movements with cell phone GPS data.
The case involves a series of armed robberies and the defendant’s convictions were partially supported by cell location data that showed he had been near the robbery locations around the time of each crime. The prosecution used historical location data that was stored by wireless carriers to track the defendant’s movements over the relevant period of time. On Monday, the Supreme Court said it would review the case, United States vs. Carpenter.
Privacy advocates have focused on the case as a landmark for privacy rights as they apply to information generated by users’ devices and shared with third parties, such as carriers.
“This is very exciting news in the world of digital privacy. With Carpenter, the Court has an opportunity to continue its recent pattern of applying Fourth Amendment protections to sensitive digital data. It may also limit or even reevaluate the so-called ‘Third Party Doctrine,’ which the government relies on to justify warrantless tracking and surveillance in a variety of contexts,” Andrew Crocker and Jennifer Lynch of the EFF said in a post analyzing the case.
“The cell site cases are important because where we travel can reveal very sensitive details about our lives.”
In the Carpenter case, the police relied on the Stored Communications Act, rather than applying for a search warrant. The records that the police got from carpenter’s carrier covered more than four months of his movements, and Carpenter’s attorneys from the ACLU said the use of the data violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
“Depending on how it decides the Carpenter case, the Supreme Court could settle the broader question of how the Fourth Amendment protects all sorts of sensitive and voluminous digital records that about communications and activities,” Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney at the ACLU, said.
“New technologies, and their ballooning capacities to collect data about the people who use them, bring enormous conveniences to both regular users and law enforcement agencies that leverage them to solve crimes. But the fact that our whereabouts, habits, and associations often leave a digital trail doesn’t nullify the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom from unreasonable government searches.”
The Supreme Court plans to consider the Carpenter case in its next term.