The Supreme Court is progressively adjusting the nation’s laws to the digital reality of everyday life, especially when it protects the information cell phones can reveal.
In recognizing that details of a person’s physical movement exist on his or her cell phone, the nation’s highest court ruled Friday that police must obtain a search warrant to get data from cell phone providers. There is an exception for emergency situations.
To obtain the records, law enforcement officials must show to a court there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed, a much higher standard than the previous one developed in 1979, when the only phones were landlines. In that era, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “few could have imagined a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of the person’s movements.”
It’s the third recent court decision to favor an individual’s privacy, protections rooted in the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. Those cases required a search warrant for police to attach a GPS device to a vehicle or examine the contents of a cell phone. In Friday’s ruling, the court went beyond the facts of the 10-year-old case in which prosecutors used cell-tower data they obtained from Sprint and Metro PCS as evidence to show that Timothy Carpenter was in the vicinity during the armed robbery of mobile-phone store.
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Back then, tower technology only generated a record when a call was made and could pinpoint just a neighborhood. The majority opinion said it was important to project ahead as rapidly changing technology is likely to pose more intrusive threats to privacy. “When the government tracks the location of a cellphone,” Roberts wrote, “it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”
Progress in technology has always given the government the potential to abuse power. It was time for the court to update the rules to protect our privacy.