The Supreme Court of the United States ruled this week that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before obtaining cell phone location information from mobile carriers or third-party services.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-4 opinion.” reported The Wall Street Journal.
“Unlike the nosy neighbor who keeps an eye on comings and goings,” he wrote, the signal towers and processing centers that track cellphone users “are ever alert, and their memory is nearly infallible,” making analog-era precedents prosecutors cited to justify such warrantless searches all but obsolete.”
The decision aims at preventing surveillance activities operated by the government and protecting the privacy of the citizens under the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled that a warrant is also needed to access location data stored by mobile carriers and similar companies, this data allows to monitor almost any activity of citizens.
“While individuals regularly leave their vehicles, they compulsively carry cell phones with them all the time. A cell phone faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor’s offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales.” continues Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Critically, because location information is continually logged for all of the 400 million
devices in the United States – not just those belonging to persons who might happen to come under investigation – this newfound tracking capacity runs against everyone.”
Of course, the authorities can operate without a warrant when there are situations of danger for life of citizens or when handling national security issues.
The ruling came in the wake of Timothy Carpenter v. US case filed in 2011, when the US police arrested members of a gang who committed armed robberies at several stores.
Gang members confessed the group was led by Timothy Carpenter, a version that was verified by the Police obtaining a court order for Carpenter’s cell phone location information and verifying the presence of the suspect near the robberies.
Carpenter was condemned to more than 100 years in prison, but lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union that represented him at the high court defined the decision “a truly historic vindication of privacy rights.”
The lawyers argued that a court order should not have been enough to obtain access to the mobile’s location data of the suspect, and a search warrant should have been obtained instead.
The Supreme Court ruling was praised by privacy advocated because it aims at defending the privacy of the citizens against any abuse.
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(Security Affairs – location data, Supreme Court)