WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Supreme Court of the United States handed a major victory to digital privacy in what will become a landmark case regarding law enforcement’s ability to comb certain digital data from cell phones with out a warrant.
“In a 5-4 decision on Friday, the justices said police need warrants to gather phone location data as evidence for trials. That reversed and remanded a decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Carpenter v. United States is the first case about phone location data that the Supreme Court has ruled on. That makes it a landmark decision regarding how law enforcement agencies can use technology as they build cases. The court heard arguments in the case on Nov. 29.
The dispute dates back to a 2011 robbery in Detroit, after which police gathered months of phone location data from Timothy Carpenter’s phone provider. They pulled together 12,898 different locations from Carpenter, over 127 days.”
With a new digital age raising all sorts of question about how personal data is treated, up to bringing Facebook executives in to testify before congress about the handling of social media data, this decision brings the rule of law into current times.
Not by changing any premise of the Fourth Amendment, mind you, but by actually applying the principles of that amendment as originally intended to a new set of issues brought about by technology advances.
“In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the government’s searches of Carpenter’s phone records were considered a Fourth Amendment search.
“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,” he wrote.
Roberts said allowing government access to historical GPS data infringes on Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment protections and expectation of privacy, by providing law enforcement with an “all-encompassing record” of his whereabouts. He added that historical GPS data presents an “even greater privacy risk” than real-time GPS monitoring.”
As the world has progressed further into this digital age law enforcement agencies apparently viewed it as a Wild West of evidence collection, with no regard for constitutional rights of suspects, or even collaterally affected individuals.
Collecting data, even meta-data, can reveal a lot about a person and their activities, proving extremely useful to criminal investigations. However useful that information is, the government should still be required to have a warrant, based on probable cause.
Guarding against general warrants, or no warrant requirements at all, lies at the very heart of our forefathers push for independence from the British.
It was earlier this year that we covered rights abusing general warrant tactics employed right here in North Carolina by the Raleigh police department. In those cases the Raleigh Police Department was demanding Google account info from EVERYONE that appeared in certain location over a specific period of time.
As of now it is unclear how far reaching Friday’s decision will permeate Fourth Amendment abuses by law enforcement, and whether it will extend to the use of general warrants.
What is clear is that police will now have to demonstrate probable cause to search for digital data and that the law will finally begin to protect the inherent rights of individuals in the new digital age.