In a major win for privacy, the Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in a decision on Friday that police need warrants to gather phone location data as evidence for trials. The decision is a reversal of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Carpenter v. United States.
Carpenter was implicated in a 2011 robbery in Detroit after which police acquired months of phone location data from his phone provider. The data showed that he was 12,898 different locations over 127 days. The Sixth Circuit decision simply ruled that the cellphone was not protected under the Fourth Amendment — a decision that would blow a huge hole in privacy rights in America.
Chief Justice John Roberts broke from the right of the Court to rule that the government’s searches of Carpenter’s phone records did constitute a Fourth Amendment search. Roberts noted that the rising use of cellphones and their data presents a growing challenge to privacy: “The Government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s, not for a short period but for years and years.”
Roberts was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Apple, Facebook and Google, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court, supporting a higher standard for access.
The most welcomed element was the recognition that cellphones are now such a common part of life “that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society.” However, Roberts noted that the ruling is “a narrow one” and applies only to cell-site location records. He stressed that data from a shorter period of time might be permitted on a warrantless basis. The opinion also expressly reserves the question of such warrantless demands as cell-site location records in real time. He also noted exigent exceptions such as the need to deal with “bomb threats, active shootings, and child abductions.”
Even with the narrowing language, it was a good day for privacy.
Here is the decision: Carpenter Opinion