Supreme Court adopts new rules for cellphone tracking

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What happened: On Friday, the US Supreme Court handed down a five-to-four ruling that requires a search warrant before law enforcement officials can sift through your cell-phone location data.

The opinion noted that the decision was narrow and does not address "conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras; does not address other business records that might incidentally reveal location information; and does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security".

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the four liberals on the court to write the prevailing decision. Roberts wrote that "an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements" as they are captured by cellphone towers.

A person walks with an umbrella prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to impose limits on the ability of police to obtain cellphone data pinpointing the past location of criminal suspects, outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 22, 2018.

The outcome marks a big change in how police can obtain phone records.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

Kennedy wrote that the court's "new and uncharted course will inhibit law enforcement" and "keep defendants and judges guessing for years to come". The ruling stems from a case in which phone location data was gathered about a man suspected (and eventually convicted) of armed robberies of Detroit-area Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores.

Police helped establish that Carpenter was near the scene of the robberies by securing from his cellphone carrier his past "cell site location information" that tracks which cellphone towers relay calls.

In the 5-4 ruling, the court said police generally need a court-approved warrant to get access to the data, setting a higher legal hurdle than previously existed under federal law.

Carpenter's case will now return to lower courts.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Carpenter, said a warrant would provide protection against unjustified government snooping. Authorities can go to the phone company and obtain information about the numbers dialed from a home telephone without presenting a warrant.

"The Government's position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter's location but also everyone else's, not for a short period but for years and years", wrote Chief Justice Roberts.

That case came to the court before the digital age, and the law on which prosecutors relied to obtain an order for Carpenter's records dates from 1986, when few people had cellphones.

The Supreme Court in recent years has acknowledged technology's effects on privacy. The court also declined to rule on whether obtaining real-time location data from a cellphone qualified as a search under the Fourth Amendment, and left open the possibility that the government could access less than seven days' worth of location information without a warrant. On Friday, he returned to the metaphor to note that a phone "faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor's offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales". In 2016, he lost an appeal at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, with judges ruling that cellphone location data didn't merit Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

The decision was issued during a time of rising concern over surveillance practices of law enforcement and intelligence agencies and whether companies like wireless carriers care about customer privacy rights. His conviction may not be overturned because other evidence also linked him to the crimes.

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