Is Cellphone Location Data Protected By The Fourth Amendment?

in Law/Politics

When the Bill of Rights was drafted and ratified, the United States of America was a different time. It was undoubtedly a simpler time. When privacy protections were passed, it was very clear at the time. The government would need a warrant to enter your personal property or search you personally. Any search could not occur without authorization from a judge.

Technology poses a new challenge for the courts. Given how close the world has become due to it, security has new concerns. But do these security concerns trump the Fourth Amendment?

The Supreme Court is now considering a case that would tackle whether cellphone location data is protected under the Constitution. It’s complicated territory, because the data is often considered property of the cellular provider. With this said, it’s information produced by the individual user.

The specifics of the case, US v Carpenter, centers around Timothy Carpenter. He was convicted of a string of robberies over the course of 2010 and 2011 across two states. The Federal Bureau of Investigation acquired his cell phone’s location data to help convict him of the crimes. The problem here is that the FBI received this information from MetroPCS and Sprint without a warrant.

Should the United States government have acquired a warrant before obtaining the location data from the wireless carriers? It is a complicated question. The government argues authority under the Stored Communications Act of 1986 to acquire this information. Carpenter’s lawyer, Nathan Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union, argues otherwise. Wessler views this as a search clearly subject to Fourth Amendment protections.

The government has generally lost sight of the fact that the Bill of Rights was designed to limit its power against the people and protect citizens from intrusive big government. In this instance, it seems fairly straight forward that the Fourth Amendment would be applicable.

Back in 2012, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the concurring opinion in a case ruling that using a GPS device to track someone’s every move constitutes a search. How would it be any different in this instance?

The government argues that the user voluntarily submits location information when it signs up for the service, thus making their location information property of the government.

Justice Sonia Sotomayer voiced concerns about how a precedent here could be used to further invade the privacy of consumers. She cites the ability to ping your location wherever you are, no matter how private.

Are we sacrificing our privacy by getting cell phones?

Consider that non-smartphones are a fading element of society. Having a smartphone has become the ultimate convenience. You can bank, text, call, shop, e-mail, write and research on your device. It’s a super computer in your pocket and many people have it for both personal and professional reasons. It’s generally advanced society for the better.

But by using available technology, are you giving away your privacy? If the federal government gets its way, then your location history is someone else’s property and doesn’t require a warrant to acquire. George Orwell couldn’t have written a scarier nightmare than the world facing us right now.

Chris Dixon is a liberty activist and writer from Maine. In addition to being Managing Editor for the Liberty Conservative, he also writes the Bangor Daily News blog "Undercover Porcupine" and for sports website Cleatgeeks.

2 Comments

  1. The data isn’t the property of the government, but of the Cell carrier. But the cell carrier is often in talks for merger or bandwidth, so can’t offend the government without consequence, so the FBI can just say “please” instead of getting a warrant.
    Consider Apple that refused to decrypt the iPhone.
    Which of the Cell Phone carriers has a policy to require a warrant for such data? Any?

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