The US Supreme Court, in a 'narrow' 5-4 decision, has held that the government and law enforcement need a warrant to gain access to cell phone records pertaining to location data. This is being hailed as a landmark judgement with regards to digital privacy.
The Fourth Amendment (Amendment IV) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. It requires "reasonable" governmental searches and seizures to be conducted only upon issuance of a warrant, judicially sanctioned by probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. Under the Fourth Amendment, search and seizure (including arrest) should be limited in scope according to specific information supplied to the issuing court, usually by a law enforcement officer who has sworn by it.
Digital privacy refers to the protection of an individual's information that is used or created while using the Internet on a computer or personal device.
In a 5-4 ruling, justices ruled that police need a warrant to access data from mobile service providers that shows where an individual has travelled over a period of time whether it is a matter of weeks or years.
Authored by Chief Justice Roberts, that Supreme Court ruled that the government would be violating the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution if it accesses historical records containing the physical locations of cell phones without a search warrant.
“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the 5-4 majority, citing the “deeply revealing nature of [cell-site location information], its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined the opinion.
“By recognizing that we have Fourth Amendment protections in cell phone location information, Carpenter appears to be a sweeping decision in favor of civil liberties and privacy,” notes Elizabeth Joh, a UC Davis law professor who specializes in the Fourth Amendment and digital privacy. “The majority opinion avoids a mechanical interpretation of the law and instead recognizes the ‘seismic shifts brought about by digital technology.”
The ruling is a result of a case brought forth by Timothy Carpenter. He was one of four men convicted by a federal jury in 2011 for participating in a series of robberies targeting electronic stores in Michigan and Ohio. To prove that Carpenter was at the scenes of the crimes, federal investigators sought what’s known as historical cell-site location information (CSLI), from Carpenter’s cell phone. This was done without obtaining a warrant.
“Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for five years, and the police may—in the Government’s view—call upon the results of that surveillance without regard to the constraints of the Fourth Amendment,” Roberts wrote. “Only a few without cell phones could escape this tireless and absolute surveillance.”
Our assessment is that this will be considered an example of the United States Constitution existing as a "living document" or the "living constitution". It will also play a key role in the safety of cell phone owners across the United States. However, there are concerns that this could impede with the law enforcement’s role in keeping the nation safe.