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 To make their case, government lawyers relied on an outdated, 1970s-era legal doctrine that says that once someone shares information with a “third party” — in Carpenter’s case, a cellphone company — that data is no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

I am sickened by the fact that my government (even though I haven't voted for a republicrat for 30 years, except Bernie), forces me to pay taxes and then spies on me with my own money. Not to mention they lie about it with impunity. Please wake up to the Orwellian nature of the government people, and do not be complicit through mindless compliance. Now, in the land of the free, we have compulsory vaccinations and the vaccine manufacturers have been granted complete immunity from prosecution. No wonder there has been a massive increase in the number of vaccines that are being forced into babies and school age children. Of course you won't hear about the coincident rise in autism from a corporate media. Question the narrative!

Anornymous

Excellent. Thanks

Anonymous

Zoom out for a moment...companies with "stuff" to sell to you target you very personally. Your preferences, your FB posts... they follow you as you shop online, using the same techniques being deplored, and get you to buy their "stuff". How is this any different, except for the consequences? You're as much of a dupe being tracked and buying "stuff" you don't need (really NEED) as if you got caught shoplifting from your phone, which you accidentally left in camera mode.

Rick Kane

Cause to celebrate to be sure, but two points. One, protection of our privacy from government seizures and surveillance is in infancy, lagging far behind the present and future capacities of technology. It is an area of law in which specialists must be developed, and the judiciary must be educated. Second, let's face it, Constitutional limits on governmental action do not protect us from what in the technological age is becoming (has become?) the most pervasive abuser of our privacies -- the private sector. We need to secure the powers and willingness of Congress and legislatures to restrict use and abuse of our private data (which is most often for profit and increasingly for the political benefit of corporate-favored candidates). The idea that Google, for example, owns my data is unacceptable and the laws under which they acquire my "consent" are preposterously inadequate.

Anonymous

Some food for thought. The surveillance, the hoarding, theft and sale of personal data, cannot be acceptable to the corps and government players running the country. I just cannot fathom Jeff B having his daughter or son surveilled sitting well with him. If only due to their being control freaks. Whats good for the goose is not good for the gander is a motto of theirs. So what are all those fine fellows saying about being surveilled and their location data stored? Or, do they get certain "protections"? Is there a surveillance exclusion List I can add my name to?

Anonymous

Thanks so much ACLU staff and donators, this is great news. We are moving forward one step at a time here. ACLU area great team and need all of our do actions a d support. Thank you for this awesome work here on this. Our country is being "Governed", by huge corporate fundi G, in hands of white entitled elementary school boy bullies.

Anonymous

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which GINSBURG,
BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a
dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J.,
filed a dissenting opinion. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which
THOMAS, J., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion

tANAYA

IS IT LEGAL FOR A POLICE OFFICER TO TAKE SOMEONES CELL PHONE,JUST BECAUSE THEY WANT TO. MY SON HAS HAD 4 CELL PHONES TAKEN AND NEVER RETURNED BY THE POLICE, THE FIRST INCIDENT THEY STOPPED MY SON AFTER A NEARBY SHOOTING, THEY FOUND HIM AND A FRIEND LYING ON THE GROUND,(WHICH IS A NATURAL REACTION TO SHOTS BEING FIRED), THEY RAN WHEN THE SHOOTING BEGAN THEN GOT DOWN ON THE GROUND AND HID AS SHOTS CONTINUED TO BE FIRED.THE POLICE WHERE ARRIVED START LOOKING AROUND THE AREA FINDING MY SON WHO WASNT PRESUMING IT WAS SAFE TO GET UP,SO CONTINUED TO LAY THERE UNTIL E CONFIRMED IT WAS IN FACT THE POLICE. THE POLICE IMMEDIATLY GRABBED MY SON WENT THROUGH THE WHOLE YOU MATCH THE DESCRIPTION CRAP THEY USE AS AN EXCUSE FOR STOPPING BLACK MEN JUST BECAUSE THEY WANT TO. HE WASNT ON PROBATION OR PAROLE HE HAD ID THEY SEARCHED HIM TOOK HIS BRAND NEW IPHONE, PUT HIM IN THE CAR AND PROCEEDED TO DO THE SAME TO HIS FRIEND.LONG STORY SHORT THEY GUN POWDER RESIDUE TESTED HIM ON THE SCENE AND AFTER COMING UP EMPTY ON ALL FRONTS, BROUGHT HIM HOME.THEY CALLED ME OUTSIDE, TO HAVE A TALK WITH ME ABOUT MY SONS BAD ATTITUDE, WHICH i DIDNT APPRECIATE AND NOT TO MENTION MY SON WAS 18 AT THE TIME SO I DONT KNOW WHAT HIS GOAL WAS IN DOING THAT. SO IN HIS LEAVING I ASKED HIM WHERE SONS PHONE WAS AND HE TOLD ME IT WAS BE TAKEN AS EVIDENCE, I ASKED HIM EVEDENCE OF WHAT EXACTLY, HE SAID WELL I TOLD YOU HE WAS IN THE AREA WHERE A SHOOTING TOOK PLACE, I SAID WELL SO WHERE ABOUT 100 OTHER PEOPLE, DID YOU TAKE THEIR PHONES TO? HE SAID WELL HE WAS HIDING WHEN i FOUND HIM, I SAID WELL SOMEONE WAS SHOOTING WAS HE SUPPOSED TO STAND THERE LIKE IT WAS DUCK SEASON AND BESIDES THAT YOU SAID YOURSELF HE WAS HIDING, NOT RUNNING FROM YOU AND THEN HIDING, HE WAS JUST HIDING AND AS SOON AS HE SAW IT WAS A OFFICER HE IMMEDIATELY GOT UP FROM HIS HIDING SPOT BECAUSE IT WAS SAFE TO DO SO. HE PRETTY MUCH BLEW ME OFF AND TOLD ME IF I WANTED IT I COULD TAKE IT UP WITH THE DETECTIVE HE WAS GOING TO GIVE THE PHONE TO. SUBSEQUENTLY THEY GAVE US THE RUN AROUND FOR MONTHS AND ULTIMATELY NEVER RETURNED OR REIMBURSED US FOR THE PHONE. HE WAS BEING DETAINED AFTER BEING PULLED OVER WHILE A PASSENGER IN THE CAR WITH A FRIEND THEY BOTH WHERE RELEASED BUT AGAIN THEY TOOK HIS PHONE AND NEVER RETURNED IT. AND THERE HAS BEEN 2 MORE TIMES HE ACCTUALLY WAS ARRESTED AND FOR REASONS UNKNOWN THEY ALSO TOOK HIS PHONE AND NEVER RETURNED THEM. iS THAT LEGAL? HE IS CURRENTLY UNDER INVESTIGATION FOR THE 2ND TIME IN A SPAN OF 6 MONTHS FOR A CRIME HE DIDNT COMMIT. BUT THEY TOOK HIS PHONE AND ARE USING IT TO TRY AND TIE HIM TO THE CRIME WHICH THEY ALSO TRIED TO DO IN THE FIRST INVESTIGATION THAT THEY HAD TO DROP BECAUSE HE WAS INNOCENT AND THERE WASNT ANY EVIDENCE. i TRULY BELIEVE THAT THIS CURRENT INVESTIGATION IS PART OF THE ON GOING WITCH HUNT FOR MY SON. THEY WHERE HUMILIATED BECAUSE OF ALL THE MISTAKES THEY MADE IN WRONGLY ACCUSING HIM AND HAVE BEEN OUT TO GET HIM MORE THAN EVER SINCE THEN. IS IT EVEN LEGAL FOR THEM TO OBTAIN INFORMATION FROM HIS PHONES THAT WHERE TAKEN WITHOUT A WARRANT TO TRY AND LINK HIM TO THESE CRIMES WHICH ARE THE RESULT POLICE INCOMPETENCY AND RUSH TO JUDGEMENT IN ORDER TO SOLVE A CRIME WITH THE HOPES OF REDEEMING THEMSELVES?

Anonymous

Well this happened to me because I was married and divorced an officer of the law. Not only did he use this info illegally in my divorce case, he continued to use it for two years. Now is trying to trump charges on me through MSDH- got me fired( falsifying charges on students I work with and my own children. He breached the network at my job place at Overpark Elementary in Olivebranch, MS- I was fired from school, treaty like I had abused children. Now that I've moved, TN Deptarment of health, claiming false charges because he doesn't want to pay child support or spousal support.( we were married for 20 years.) The police here didn't take me serious when I reported this. ( He worked undercover here for 10 years) I also had my network from comcast taken out, ( discovered it had been spliced with different routers and connectors) been through 5 phones, and still can't communicate to proper places about all that has happened.
So yes- I think this is illegal. Given the fact he recently told me "I can make you disappear and no one would know." I'm beginning to wonder if a badge gives you the authority to do that. Where is my justice?

Anonymous

It's about time . We seem to have lost sight on the fundamental importance of personal privacy and the lack of it especially since 911. We have moved in a dangerous direction allowing for a complete "police state" and endangering and choking out liberty and freedom completely. This ruling must start a trend back the other way or . . .

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