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 To make their case, government lawyers relied on an outdated, 1970s-era legal doctrine that says that once someone shares information with a “third party” — in Carpenter’s case, a cellphone company — that data is no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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Anonymous

That is why I don't have a cell phone and never have, don't use facebook and never have, don't do anything on line except be government conscience and sign petitions go to sites and my FBI file is probably 2 inches thick since I've been protesting since Vietnam. Oh and BTW I use duckduckgo which does NOT store information for finding anything and NOT Google. If I was more savvey how to do it I would also encrypt everything I do on the computer, but even then how do they know what TV shows I watch? Cuz I'm bundled with Comcast and they probably share it all.

Anonymous

A breath of fresh air and hope!
Thank you, SCOTUS!

Inactive Cipher

In an environment where the 4th Amendment is continually violated, via stop-and-frisk, mass internet surveillance and commercial and governmental data collection, this is a momentary remission for which we can be thankful. Thinking that the inadmissibility of such evidence will cause such government misconduct to stop is, I fear, premature and naive. As the Writ of Habeas Corpus has been suspended indefinitely (see the defeat of the Udall amendment, on 1 December 2011), putting suspected Enemies of the State away without charge, without trial and without end, will effectively incarcerate those same suspicious citizens without incurring the cost or bother of trial.

I hope that I'm completely wrong. I fear that I'm not.

Anonymous

Thank you very much for all your hard work for restoring our freedom, one step at a time.

Wolf Baginski

Here in the EU, with GDPR, we're being swamped by detail of just who a US company is already sharing this sort of data with. In the past, Commercial TV sold us as groups, the people who watched a particular program. and it worked. Why do several hundred different advertising companies want so many personal details?

It's good that this control is here, but privacy is already dead, and as a non-citizen I am not confident that I have any protection in US law anyway. But the internet is international.

Anonymous

Great read and thank you very much for all your efforts

Anonymous

Maybe the greatest ruling of the Roberts' Court in American history. This is a huge victory for targets of longterm CoinTelPro style blacklisting programs/tactics, because it will essentially create a "paper-trail" of search and surveillance activity. In other words if Post-9/11 blacklistees - likely hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans - hire an attorney for violations of Title 18 US Code 242 (and like statutes), there will now be evidence that can be subpoenaed as discovery evidence.

Going forward, warrantless searches and warrantless surveillance will NOT be "official duties" protected by Sovereign Immunity. In other words plaintiff's attorneys can go after the "personal assets" of police officers, FBI agents and even private contractors (since they have exceeded their authority as a constitutional officer). Legal searches and legal surveillance will now have a paper-trail to document abuses of authority. Great day!

Anonymous

Thank You, Mr. Wessler!!
I've been waiting for the Supreme Court to recognize this obvious violation of the Fourth Amendment for a long time. Many make the argument, "Privacy is dead--get over it!" in reaction to the latest privacy outrage (potential for monitoring through your certain TVs, Alexa recording snippets of conversation, inadvertent posting of location via Fitbit, and government intrusions: mandatory use of facial recognition at Orlando airport, DNA collection for arrest before conviction, etc). I always find this "argument" disingenuous--it is an attempt to persuade the public that they should not care about privacy. Privacy is only dead if we collectively stop caring about it and assume that it is always the necessary cost for convenience and public safety. We are conditioned to accept this much like the End User License Agreement that we don't read--you must agree to certain conditions to use a product. I am very happy to see that the Supreme Court has rejected such absurd terms of service in order to simply live in the modern world.

Anonymous

What would happen in a case where a kidnapped child's life was at risk, and rapid location was of utmost importance? I would worry about this kind of situation. Is there a provision for this?

Anonymous

It's called a warrant, dumbass.

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