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Supreme Court Ruling Requires Government To Obtain Search Warrants To Collect Users' Location Data

On Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a decision which requires the government to obtain warrants in order to collect information from wireless carriers such as geo-location data. 9to5Mac reported that the court case resulted from:

"... a 2010 case of armed robberies in Detroit in which prosecutors used data from wireless carriers to make a conviction. In this case, lawyers had access to about 13,000 location data points. The sticking point has been whether access and use of data like this violates the Fourth Amendment. Apple, along with Google and Facebook had previously submitted a brief to the Supreme Court arguing for privacy protection..."

The Fourth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution states:

"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."

The New York Times reported:

"The 5-to-4 ruling will protect "deeply revealing" records associated with 400 million devices, the chief justice wrote. It did not matter, he wrote, that the records were in the hands of a third party. That aspect of the ruling was a significant break from earlier decisions. The Constitution must take account of vast technological changes, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, noting that digital data can provide a comprehensive, detailed — and intrusive — overview of private affairs that would have been impossible to imagine not long ago. The decision made exceptions for emergencies like bomb threats and child abductions..."

Background regarding the Fourth Amendment:

"In a pair of recent decisions, the Supreme Court expressed discomfort with allowing unlimited government access to digital data. In United States v. Jones, it limited the ability of the police to use GPS devices to track suspects’ movements. And in Riley v. California, it required a warrant to search cellphones. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that both decisions supported the result in the new case.

The Supreme court's decision also discussed historical use of the "third-party doctrine" by law enforcement:

"In 1979, for instance, in Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled that a robbery suspect had no reasonable expectation that his right to privacy extended to the numbers dialed from his landline phone. The court reasoned that the suspect had voluntarily turned over that information to a third party: the phone company. Relying on the Smith decision’s “third-party doctrine,” federal appeals courts have said that government investigators seeking data from cellphone companies showing users’ movements do not require a warrant. But Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the doctrine is of limited use in the digital age. “While the third-party doctrine applies to telephone numbers and bank records, it is not clear whether its logic extends to the qualitatively different category of cell-site records,” he wrote."

The ruling also covered the Stored Communications Act, which requires:

"... prosecutors to go to court to obtain tracking data, but the showing they must make under the law is not probable cause, the standard for a warrant. Instead, they must demonstrate only that there were “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” that the records sought “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” That was insufficient, the court ruled. But Chief Justice Roberts emphasized the limits of the decision. It did not address real-time cell tower data, he wrote, “or call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras.” "

What else this Supreme Court decision might mean:

"The decision thus has implications for all kinds of personal information held by third parties, including email and text messages, internet searches, and bank and credit card records. But Chief Justice Roberts said the ruling had limits. "We hold only that a warrant is required in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party," the chief justice wrote. The court’s four more liberal members — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — joined his opinion."

Dissenting opinions by conservative Justices cited restrictions on law enforcement's abilities and further litigation. Breitbart News focused upon divisions within the Supreme Court and dissenting Justices' opinions, rather than a comprehensive explanation of the majority's opinion and law. Some conservatives say that President Trump will have an opportunity to appoint two Supreme Court Justices.

Albert Gidari, the Consulting Director of Privacy at the Stanford Law Center for Internet and Society, discussed the Court's ruling:

"What a Difference a Week Makes. The government sought seven days of records from the carrier; it got two days. The Court held that seven days or more was a search and required a warrant. So can the government just ask for 6 days with a subpoena or court order under the Stored Communications Act? Here’s what Justice Roberts said in footnote 3: “[W]e need not decide whether there is a limited period for which the Government may obtain an individual’s historical CSLI free from Fourth Amendment scrutiny, and if so, how long that period might be. It is sufficient for our purposes today to hold that accessing seven days of CSLI constitutes a Fourth Amendment search.” You can bet that will be litigated in the coming years, but the real question is what will mobile carriers do in the meantime... Where You Walk and Perhaps Your Mere Presence in Public Spaces Can Be Private. The Court said this clearly: “A person does not surrender all Fourth Amendment protection by venturing into the public sphere. To the contrary, “what [one] seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.”” This is the most important part of the Opinion in my view. It’s potential impact is much broader than the location record at issue in the case..."

Mr. Gidari's essay explored several more issues:

  • Does the Decision Really Make a Difference to Law Enforcement?
  • Are All Business Records in the Hands of Third Parties Now Protected?
  • Does It Matter Whether You Voluntarily Give the Data to a Third Party?

And:

Most people carry their smartphones with them 24/7 and everywhere they go. Hence, the geo-location data trail contains unique and very personal movements: where and whom you visit, how often and long you visit, who else (e.g., their smartphones) is nearby, and what you do (e.g., calls, mobile apps) at certain locations. The Supreme Court, or at least a majority of its Justices, seem to recognize and value this.

What are your opinions of the Supreme Court ruling?

Comments

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Chanson de Roland

While the broad principle in Carpenter, which extends the protections of the Fourth Amendment to certain information held by certain third-party tech firms, is apparent, the United States Supreme Court (Court) significantly limited Carpenter’s reach. The principle is that whenever and wherever a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in information that he conveyed to a third-party tech firm for services which are necessary to live a modern life, such as cellphone service, the protections of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Const. apply so that government, federal, state, or local, must obtain a probable-cause warrant to obtain or monitor that person’s information. That’s the principle.

But it has its significant limits. First, on its own terms: Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy? Is the third-party tech service necessary to a modern life, such as cellphone service? If the answer to either question is no, then there is no Fourth Amendment protection, and, thus, the government would not need a probable-cause warrant to reach the defendant’s information.

Then Chief Justice Roberts noted several other well established exceptions to the need for a Fourth Amendment, probable-cause, warrant: Those include the exigent circumstances exception, the national security exception, the foreign affairs exception, et al.

Then Chief Justice Roberts was clear in saying that his opinion in Carpenter was not a general principle but was limited to its specific facts. That means, that notwithstanding the clear principle in Carpenter, the Court is mindful of the risks and unintended consequences that could arise from the sweeping application of Fourth Amendment protection to such a broad category of information and, thus, has declined to broadly apply Carpenter’s principle of giving Fourth Amendment protect to all information held by third-party tech firms, where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, but has reserved the right to take each of the coming cases, and those cases will come, on its specifics facts to tailor its holding in Carpenter to whatever balance of constitutional interests the instant circumstances require.

So while Carpenter’s principle of Fourth Amendment protection is broad, just how far the Court will extend that protection will be a matter of the Court’s evolving jurisprudence on the extent to which a criminal defendant has Fourth Amendment protection for his information that a third-party tech firm holds.

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