The Supreme Court’s Groundbreaking Privacy Victory for the Digital Age

The Supreme Court on Friday handed down what is arguably the most consequential privacy decision of the digital age, ruling that police need a warrant before they can seize people’s sensitive location information stored by cellphone companies.

The case specifically concerns the privacy of cellphone location data, but the ruling has broad implications for government access to all manner of information collected about people and stored by the purveyors of popular technologies. In its decision, the court rejects the government’s expansive argument that people lose their privacy rights merely by using those technologies.

Carpenter v. U.S., which was argued by the ACLU, involves Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in 2013 of a string of burglaries in Detroit. To tie Carpenter to the burglaries, FBI agents obtained — without seeking a warrant — months’ worth of his location information from Carpenter’s cellphone company. They got almost 13,000 data points tracking Carpenter’s whereabouts during that period, revealing where he slept, when he attended church, and much more. Indeed, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Friday’s decision, “when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”.

The ACLU argued the agents had violated Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment rights when they obtained such detailed records without a warrant based on probable cause. In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court agreed, recognizing that the Fourth Amendment must apply to records of such unprecedented breadth and sensitivity:

Mapping a cell phone’s location over the course of 127 days provides an all-encompassing record of the holder’s whereabouts. As with GPS information, the timestamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’

The government’s argument that it needed no warrant for these records extends far beyond cellphone location information, to any data generated by modern technologies and held by private companies rather than in our own homes or pockets. To make their case, government lawyers relied on an outdated, 1970s-era legal doctrine that says that once someone shares information with a “third party” — in Carpenter’s case, a cellphone company — that data is no longer protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court made abundantly clear that this doctrine has its limits and cannot serve as a carte blanche for the government seizure of any data of its choosing without judicial oversight.

“There is a world of difference between the limited types of personal information addressed” by the 1970s doctrine, “and the exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers today,” the decision reads. Back then, “few could have imagined a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of the person’s movements.”

If the government had its way, virtually none of our sensitive information held by tech companies would enjoy the privacy rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Consider the consequences of that argument: Google and Facebook store of our photographs and messages; many of us own smart devices like Amazon’s Echo, which know our musical tastes, shopping history, and even the contents of intimate conversations; and our health and fitness apps know about our physical activity and sleep patterns. These examples barely scratch the surface when it comes to the information amassed by the websites, apps, and other internet-connected devices we rely on for convenience. The government wants easy access to all of it.

While the decision extends in the immediate term only to historical cellphone location data, the Supreme Court’s reasoning opens the door to the protection of the many other kinds of data generated by popular technologies.

Today’s decision provides a groundbreaking update to privacy rights that the digital age has rendered vulnerable to abuse by the government’s appetite for surveillance. It recognizes that “cell phones and the services they provide are ‘such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life’ that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society.” And it helps ensure that we don’t have to give up those rights if we want to participate in modern life. 

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Dr. Timothy Leary

This is good news for the time being. Eventually, though, they will have an electronic cyber warrant whereby a judge will push a button on his keyboard and it will automatically open any database that the government wants and then Trump and his minions will have his big nose in your business again.

Steven Perry

Interesting point made by Dr. Leary. So then the question to consider is how comprehensive and compelling the burden of proof is for the issuance of a warrant. Pushing a button to expeditiously release data after a warrant is issued is one thing, but just how easy is it to have a warrant issued? Shouldn’t legal safeguards also be protected so as to protect the innocent to unreasonable search?

Jerry N. Wesner

The danger of over-cooperative judges giving carte blanche to law enforcement is exacerbated by the manic filling of judicial appointments by the Trump executive branch. Poorly qualified judges eager to please the executive who placed them will give the government anything it wants, depriving citizens of normal protections. This, like so many current changes, does not bode well for our country.

Michael J. Motta

Again? The case at hand involved Obama and HIS minions.

JAMILA MALLUF

I DID NOT VOTE FOR BUSH, BUSH, OBAMA OR TRUMP BUT SHOULD WE BLAME THE LOSS OF PRIVIACY ON TRUMP, THE PATRIOT ACT DIDN'T HELP NOR DID OBAMA'S TAKING OF OUR RIGHTS BY MAKING IT LEGAL TO KILL AMERICANS ON AMERICAN SOIL AND GETTING RID OF THAT PESKY HABIS CORUPS . YOU ARE RIGHT ABOUT WHAT IS TO COME, AND SADLY WE ARE SO BUSY OOHING AND AHHHING NEW TECHOLOGIES WE ARE NOT FOCUSED ON THE CRIMINALS WHO RUN OUR COUNTRY AND HOW WE SHOULD TIE THEIR HANDS TO PROTECT OURSLEVES.

Anonymous

The government can already open whatever database they want. What do you think the NSA, CIA, and FBI do? What do you think the Patriot Act is used for? The Snowden disclosures highlighted the Executive Branch's unfettered and dangerous power abused by agents on a daily basis under the guise of "terrorism and criminality." Innocent American citizens are then left with the burden of proving that the Executive Branch intruded upon their affairs in violation of the Constitution. Quite the daunting task is it not? Congress is the main culprit for allowing this type of activity to expand following 9/11. It has gone unchecked for many years. They need to clean up their own mess. The Supreme Court's ruling in Carpenter is a positive step because it revokes some of that unfettered power from corrupt officials. Carpenter may be a criminal, but how many innocent Americans are harmed in the process? This decision allows the law to start to catch up with the times. Technology is only getting stronger. The NSA, CIA, and FBI have the most advanced forms of modern technology.

Anonymous

Also, don't forget about Homeland Security.

J. Johnson

Congratulations Nathan and the entire aclu legal team that worked on this case. Great work and great result.

Anonymous

Framing this as "Trump and his minions" misses the bigger picture for a cheap shot. The government has held this position longer than Trump has been in office, and across both Democratic and Republican administrations. If you reread this press release, it's abundantly clear that the case started while under Obama as in office. Not that I'm attempting to "blame Obama" since these antics go back even further. Government surveillance and overreach isn't a partisan issue.

James Kaye

Thanks for clearly stating what I was mulling over in my mind. People need to stop this partisan blame game, it is destructive. Certainly there are hard core believers in all areas of politics but the reality is that there is a broad spectrum of ideas out there and we need to discuss each issue on it's own merits, not based on who we may think supports it. Grow up, people.

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