Supreme Court rules warrant required to gather cell phone data

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Well duh: The Supreme Court today ruled that the police must get a warrant in order to gather cell phone GPS data from anyone’s phone.

In a 5-4 decision on Friday the justices said that 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.

The legal and privacy concern was that police gathered the four months’ worth of Carpenter’s digital footprints without a warrant. A Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals judge ruled that cellphone location data is not protected by the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure, and therefore didn’t require a warrant.

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.

That the decision was 5-4 is absurd. The language of the fourth amendment is simple and clear. That there is any doubt about the illegality of the police data gathering here speaks badly on the four justices who dissented.



  • wayne

    On the non-governmental end of this; 4th amendment only applies to the government.

    All the cell-phone carriers sell real-time GPS phone location services to 3rd party vendors, who in turn service business such as banks, trucking firms, car rental agencies, etc. (banks like it as a fraud screen.)

    Depending on who you are talking with, (or where you work) you may or may not have consented to real-time GPS location screens being done on your phone.

    >I’d reference a WSJ article this week on this very subject, (prior to the Ruling) but it’s behind a pay wall.
    In brief; 4 large carriers are terminating some of those location-data services, with certain vendors who were accused of violating privacy-provisions. In particular, one vendor had set up a web-service utilized by the police, to track cell phone locations for people calling into jails/prisons.

    The Phone Company, always know where your “phone number” is physically located, and which other numbers are associated with it. They can’t bill you unless they keep track, and have been doing so since day one in the Phone world.
    Which is why we have historically protected such data from government intrusion, via a Warrant.
    Concurrently however, the Phone System is all common-carrier, and it’s still regulated to death, make no mistake.

  • Noah Peal

    Amendment IV

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

  • Kirk

    Interestingly, the majority decision was authored by generally conservative Chief Justice Roberts and joined by the four most liberal justices: Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, & Kagan. The more conservative associate justices — Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, & Gorsuch — were in dissent, with four separate dissents written. This is the same balance from the National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius case supporting the Affordable Care Act for which the chief justice caught so much flack.

  • wodun

    The more conservative associate justices — Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, & Gorsuch — were in dissent

    This is rather troubling. A reverence for law and order should not come at the expense of an all powerful law enforcement which goes against another bedrock conservative (and used to be American) value of limited government and checks and balances to prevent government abuse of power.

  • commodude

    I have a seemingly simple request for SCOTUS:

    If you don’t know the science involved in a subject, leave it alone.

    The headline about this decision in USA Today includes a quote from Chief Justice Roberts: “What does the Fourth Amendment mean when you can, through technology, literally see through walls with heat imaging?”

    As I just got done demonstrating to several high school physics classes, infrared cannot see through walls, it’s basic physics. Stick to law, and leave science to those who understand it.

  • Cotour

    Maybe not with infrared, but you can see through walls with radar.

  • commodude

    Which are also limited in use by a SCOTUS decision, which, while scientifically horrendous, is accurate in requiring a warrant to search a home with remote sensing technology.

    The more problematic issues will come to fore when interferometry technology moves beyond requiring a supercomputer on hand to use, as that will use your household wifi and interference patterns in the signal to “search” your house, however, it’s using signals being broadcast from within the walls of the house.

  • Cotour

    Its just a matter of level of technology and we are really only at the tip of that iceberg. Whether its detecting infrared, radar, xray, scans from space, listening for heart beats, monitoring CO2 levels, what ever form it will take at some point there will be no guarantee of privacy.

    At one level law enforcement wants to know if someone is inside of where ever they are looking for what ever reason and that could be argued as a safety concern, but where do your rights end if they come looking for you purposefully or incidentally?

    And the law related to technology and the individuals rights will probably always be behind the curve as to legality.

  • commodude

    Cotour, this is why SCOTUS needs to be clear about technology and give a clear ruling regarding the use of ANY technology which would enable warrantless surveillance, rather than to continue putting bandaids on a sucking chest wound.

    Don’t pick and chose which technologies are illegal, but draw a clear line which makes technology involved completely irrelevant.

  • Cotour

    Agreed, but the technology will be developed for safety reasons search and rescue and the like and just like we see in the actions of the FBI and the DOJ the technology and the law will be perverted and abused. The law in this case means nothing if Hillary would have become the president.

    In the end the law must always defer to the individuals freedoms and rights.

  • ted

    The Gorsuch dissent is an excellent read in dissecting the history of the 4th amendment. His bailment analogies hit the nail on the head.

    In this day and age it is nearly impossible to not have to share sensitive data with 3rd parties, unless you want to live in a cabin in the Montana sticks. Because of this 3rd party data should be treated no differently than your ‘papers’ are for the 4th amendment.

  • Cotour

    You will never be able to stop the tech, it will grow stronger and stronger, faster and faster until it is seamless and the potential for abuse of power will become absolute. Because that is the nature of power and those who control it will justify its use, legal or not. SEE: FBI, DOJ, FISA etc.

    Then what?

  • commodude

    You cannot stop tech, however, what is needed is a clear, bright red line drawn with kindergarten crayon (You know, the big ones that make lines 1/2″ wide) informing law enforcement that they cannot use any electronic surveillance techniques or technologies, specific tech immaterial, against a person without first requiring probable cause and a warrant.

    They need to stop nibbling at the edges, otherwise law enforcement will continue to play the game of the 3 year old challenging the borders set up to them by their parents…..well what about this? Well, you said no to that, what about this?

    Until that happens, and it looks unlikely, this idiocy will continue.

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