Supreme Court Rules Police Need Warrants to Obtain a User's Smartphone Location Data

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The United States Supreme Court today ruled that the government "is required" to obtain a warrant if it wants to gain access to data found on a civilian's smartphone, but only when it's related to the user's location data (via The New York Times).

Image via Wikimedia Commons


The decision is expected to have major implications for digital privacy moving forward as it pertains to legal cases, and could cause ripples in unlawful search and seizure cases that involve personal information held by companies like emails, texts, internet searches, bank records, and more.
In a major statement on privacy in the digital age, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the government generally needs a warrant to collect troves of location data about the customers of cellphone companies.

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said the decision was limited. "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 justices joined his opinion.
Today's vote in the case Carpenter v. United States came down to a 5-4 ruling, and originally emerged from armed robberies of Radio Shacks and other stores in Detroit dating back to 2010.

In the case, prosecutors relied on "months of records" obtained from smartphone makers to help prove their case, ultimately showing communication between Timothy Ivory Carpenter outside of a robbery location -- with his smartphone nearby -- and his accomplices inside of the location. The companies reportedly turned over 127 days' worth of Carpenter's records, with information as specific as whether or not he slept at home on any given night or if he went to church on Sunday mornings.

This led to the question by the Supreme Court justices as to whether the prosecutors violated the Fourth Amendment in discovering so much data on Carpenter's movements. Now, police will have to receive a warrant issued by the court in order to obtain any smartphone data as it relates to the owner's location data.

As the case continued, Apple and other technology companies filed a brief in August 2017 arguing against "rigid analog-era" Fourth Amendment rules. The brief deliberately stayed neutral on the topic of choosing sides, but urged the Supreme Court to continue bringing the Fourth Amendment law into the modern era. The companies stated that customers should not be "forced to relinquish Fourth Amendment protections" against intrusion by the government, simply because they choose to use modern technology.

Note: Due to the political nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Politics, Religion, Social Issues forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.

Article Link: Supreme Court Rules Police Need Warrants to Obtain a User's Smartphone Location Data
 
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bgraham

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Jun 23, 2015
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Another 'liberal' case where Roberts sided for.

The Court could soon take a liberal turn if Roberts continues on his current trajectory, unless a liberal justice retires during Trump's presidency.
 
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Dilster3k

macrumors 6502a
Jul 20, 2014
790
3,205
I can't believe us goofball monkeys created computers and getting ourselves into issues like this. So weird!
 

BuffaloTF

macrumors 65816
Jun 10, 2008
1,025
943
I'm shocked this isn't a 9-0 slam dunk with a poster for it... how can we be so vocal about the 2nd Amendment, or the 1st... and not be equally as loud for the 4th? "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"........... come on now.
 

bradl

macrumors 601
Jun 16, 2008
4,032
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I wouldn't be surprised if there is another case for this heading to SCOTUS.

Since this case rules that the 4A applies, but the 5A doesn't apply when a fingerprint is used to unlock the phone (if TouchID is enabled), would not getting the warrant to search the phone implicitly force the suspect to give up his 5A right?

While I applaud SCOTUS for getting this one right, we've opened another can of worms here, which puts the 4A up against the 5A.

I'm shocked this isn't a 9-0 slam dunk with a poster for it... how can we be so vocal about the 2nd Amendment, or the 1st... and not be equally as loud for the 4th? "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"........... come on now.
Because for some people, the United States Constitution seems to end at the 2nd Amendment.

Regardless, I posted on this very subject here a little over 5 years ago, and no-one seemed to care, as they were too afraid of big nasty mean Obama wanting to take their guns away.

https://forums.macrumors.com/threads/your-personal-data-versus-the-4th-amendment.1649516/

BL.
 

britboyj

macrumors 6502a
Apr 8, 2009
640
653
I'm shocked this isn't a 9-0 slam dunk with a poster for it... how can we be so vocal about the 2nd Amendment, or the 1st... and not be equally as loud for the 4th? "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"........... come on now.
Because Thomas and Alito are in the GOP's pocket, regardless of their lifetime appointment position. Gorsuch has sided with the liberal justices a couple of times, which is more than I expected, but I suspect he'll remain fairly right-of-center rather than hardline right like Scalia was.

Kennedy is, and always has been, a swing vote, but susceptible to the arguments of the other justices. If Alito and Thomas leave before he does, I suspect he'll swing left more frequently than he does now.
 

neliason

macrumors 6502
Oct 1, 2015
402
642
I'm shocked this isn't a 9-0 slam dunk with a poster for it... how can we be so vocal about the 2nd Amendment, or the 1st... and not be equally as loud for the 4th? "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"........... come on now.
Reading briefly from Justice Thomas dissent his reasoning is really straightforward. He basically says this isn’t a question of law but policy. The court is writing policy not deciding law. It is being an activist court in this decision.

This case should not turn on “whether” a search oc curred. Ante, at 1. It should turn, instead, on whose property was searched. The Fourth Amendment guaran tees individuals the right to be secure from unreasonable searches of “their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, “each person has the right to be secure against unreasonable searches . . . in his own person, house, papers, and effects.” Minnesota v. Carter, 525 U. S. 83, 92 (1998) (Scalia, J., concurring). By obtaining the cell-site records of MetroPCS and Sprint, the Government did not search Carpenter’s property. He did not create the records, he does not maintain them, he cannot control them, and he cannot destroy them. Neither the terms of his contracts nor any provision of law makes the records his. The records belong to MetroPCS and Sprint.

The Court concludes that, although the records are not Carpenter’s, the Government must get a warrant because Carpenter had a reasonable “expectation of privacy” in the location information that they reveal. Ante, at 11. I agree with JUSTICE KENNEDY, JUSTICE ALITO, JUSTICE GORSUCH, and every Court of Appeals to consider the question that this is not the best reading of our precedents...

The Katz test has no basis in the text or history of the Fourth Amendment. And, it invites courts to make judgments about policy, not law.
 
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slimtastic

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May 17, 2018
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Once you go in to public spaces you give up many privacy rights. WHERE they got their data from was the problem.
Right, but that shouldn't matter. The data itself needs to have integrity and be protected. I think lawmakers are slowly figuring this out. This information is highly valuable not just by gov't/law enforcement, but also bad actors like hackers etc.
 

jimothyGator

macrumors 6502
Jun 12, 2008
279
912
Atlanta, GA
After reading the NYT article, or the Mac Rumors summary of it, that the conservative judges ruled that a warrant is not necessary. I'm still reading the decision myself (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-402_h315.pdf, PDF), but at least some of the dissenting opinions (Gorsuch, for instance), the objection appears to be that the 4th amendment protections of the majority opinion are two narrow. Gorsuch questions the legitimacy of the third party doctrine, and the notion that people give up their "reasonable expectation of privacy" when they give their information, such as cell phone records, to third parties, such as mobile phone operators.
 

lederermc

macrumors 6502a
Sep 30, 2014
645
554
Seattle
You would think most criminals would know by now to use a burner phone or how to turn off location services when at work.
 

Felix01

macrumors regular
Oct 22, 2008
163
82
I thought tower triangulation is not that accurate. (at all)
Depends upon the area (rural vs suburban vs city), the height of surrounding buildings and interference, the angles between the cell towers and the phone (three 120° angles would be optimal), phone battery level, the effectiveness of phone's antenna and transmitter and a few other things beyond the scope of this brief answer.

Anyway, for a rule of thumb, figure a three-tower triangulation should get you within 300 meters.
 

QuarterSwede

macrumors G3
Oct 1, 2005
9,355
1,390
Colorado Springs, CO
Reading briefly from Justice Thomas dissent his reasoning is really straightforward. He basically says this isn’t a question of law but policy. The court is writing policy not deciding law.
And the Supreme Court shouldn’t be making law. That’s the legislative branch’s job not the judicial branch’s. There is a great NPR podcast, More Perfect, on why and how the Supreme Court began setting legal precedence and is being abused.
 

gnasher729

macrumors P6
Nov 25, 2005
17,123
4,146
I thought tower triangulation is not that accurate. (at all)
On one hand, it's not that inaccurate either. You could be located within 100 meters probably.

However, triangulation shouldn't happen. All your phone company needs to know is that you are near tower X. They don't need to know that you are also near tower Y and tower Z and calculate your location as best as they can.

And finally, there is "expectation of privacy". If a phone company said "we need to know exactly where you are to get the phone system working properly. However, we don't hand this information over without a search warrant", then you would have an expectation of privacy.
 
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Princejb134

macrumors 6502
Jul 22, 2012
280
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I'm shocked this isn't a 9-0 slam dunk with a poster for it... how can we be so vocal about the 2nd Amendment, or the 1st... and not be equally as loud for the 4th? "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"........... come on now.
Since when did I the amendment matter anymore?
The government does whatever they want
They might as well just shred the bill of rights
 

bgraham

macrumors regular
Jun 23, 2015
134
771
United Kingdom
How is this a liberal decision? Generally curious.
Because all of the liberal justices voted for it and all the conservative justices voted against it, basically.

Conservatives tend to favour a strong state with regards to policing, and so liberal justices take a broader interpretation of the Constitution's 4th and 14th Amendments with regards to searches, seizures and privacy. Obviously hugely oversimplifying here.
 
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