Supreme Court hands down groundbreaking victory for digital privacy rights

June 23, 2018

Supreme Court hands down groundbreaking victory for digital privacy rights MitchellShapiroPhotography / CCL

The United States Supreme Court recently issued a decision that proponents of digital privacy rights are calling a “huge” victory.

On Friday, the justices of the High Court ruled that, in general, police must obtain a warrant before they can track a person’s movements using cellphone records. This seems to continue the recent trend of greater privacy rights for digital content.

The underlying case

Often lost in the broad sweep of such a ruling is the situation that gave rise to it. Here, it was about a man named Timothy Carpenter.

Carpenter was accused of committing multiple robberies in both Michigan and Ohio. Central to the prosecution’s case was Carpenter’s cell phone records, which they used to pinpoint his location over a four-month period. They obtained these records with a court order, which has a lower standard than a warrant.

Using this evidence, the prosecution managed to get a guilty verdict, resulting in a sentence of more than 100 years of imprisonment. But Carpenter, represented by the ACLU appealed, arguing that the cell phone records were unconstitutionally gathered by the prosecution.

The case eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, where the question became whether the obtainment of cell phone records, for the purposes of determining an individual’s location, constitutes a Fourth Amendment search and seizure, and thus requires greater protection than a mere court order.

SCOTUS declares digital privacy rights

In a 5-4 decision, the justices held that greater protection was afforded to such information – that a warrant, which, again, has a higher standard than a court order, is necessary.

The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kana joining in. After taken into account all considerations, including that cell-site location information [CSLI] “is detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled,” along with the fact that “individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements, Roberts concluded that, in order to comply with the Fourth Amendment, “the government will generally need a warrant to access CSLI.”

But, Roberts was quick limit the scope of this ruling, noting that it does not apply to “other business records that might incidentally reveal location information” or “other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security.” He added that warrantless searches may still be allowable under “exigent circumstances.”

The four remaining justice – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Anthony Kennedy – dissented from the majority opinion, mostly on technical grounds.

Reactions

The first to put forth thoughts on the ruling was the ACLU, who called it a “historic” win and predicts that it “will have a ripple effect for privacy.” The group put out a series of tweets explaining the decision, saying, “it will help protect all sorts of digital information stored online, from emails to data from smart home appliances.”

One of the ACLU attorneys who worked on the case, Nate Wessler, posted the following video, discussing these points:

The decision was also praised by The Constitution Project, who called it a “long-overdue advance for privacy rights.” But, in the same tweet, it went on to say that the Court was only “taking baby steps as tech sprints ahead.”

Of course, we will have to wait and see how this decision is applied in future cases and whether the ACLU prediction comes true. But, things seem to be going in the direction of greater privacy for digital content: Friday’s decision follows another, made in 2014, in which the same court held that a police officer needs a warrant to search the cell phone of an arrested person.


Robert Ayers

Robert Ayers is a writer for Conservative Institute. He has a Bachelor’s degree from Quinnipiac University and a JD from the University of Connecticut.