The United States Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision today granting constitutional protection to a very narrow and specific form of data – cell-site location information on a citizen.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision upending decades of law that pointed to a different outcome. He correctly pointed out that wireless carriers can collect deeply revealing information about cell phone owners that should be protected, and that the United States Constitution is going to be that protection effective today.
“Given the unique nature of cell phone location records, the fat that the information is held by a third party does not by itself overcome the user’s claim to Fourth Amendment protection,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts. “Whether the Government employs its own surveillance technology…or leverages the technology of a wireless carrier, we hold that an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI.”
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Prosecutors and police worry that this will negatively affect many law enforcement investigative techniques (i.e. collecting credit card transactions) to track the whereabouts of suspects. However, the majority of the justices concluded that citizens should expect our cell-tower location records to be kept private absent probable cause and a warrant.
Americans should not have to worry about a detective or agent of the government tracking our whereabouts over an extended period of time which is exactly what this case is all about. The Court reserved possible exceptions like child abductions, active shootings, and bomb threats. Also, the Constitution may tolerate cell-tower surveillance for shorter periods of time like 24-48 hours. Regardless, SCOTUS closed the unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of cell-site location information.
Law enforcement can still (for now) use credit card purchases and obtain a printout of record of every cell phone call we make and text (just not the messages) pursuant to the “Stored Communications Act” that specifically authorizes law enforcement to get this information without a warrant.