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What the Supreme Court Ruling Means for your Cell Phone Data…and What it Doesn’t

What the Supreme Court Ruling Means for your Cell Phone Data...and What it Doesn't

The Supreme Court just made a major statement on the boundaries of digital privacy for cell phone users. The case centered on the appeal of a man who had been convicted of multiple armed robberies. To build a case against the man, law enforcement had searched his phone for location data. This brought up the question: Is cell phone data like other personal property that can’t be searched without a warrant? The Supreme Court sought to determine whether this was an example of an unlawful search and seizure based on the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In the end, the Court ruled that law enforcement should obtain a warrant before searching cell phone data.

Cellphone Records as a Tool for Police

Law enforcement may have previously used cell phones to learn about personal or work-related contacts or access emails. More recently though, location information has allowed law enforcement to retrospectively track a suspect by examining the data trail stored on a cell phone. In some cases, this data has proven key to undoing a person's alibi or protecting them. In fact, the police regularly request this information from the wireless providers because it helps to prove what a person was doing or where they were at a specific time. Unlike personal reports, data is largely unbiased and comprehensive. In the current example considered by the Supreme Court, Timothy Carpenter’s cell phone company had turned over 127 days of his digital and physical whereabouts. That information was used to declare him near the scene of where the robberies took place at T-Mobile and Radio Shack. In addition to this information, the information mapped Carpenter’s every move-from where he slept at night to when he attended church. In total, Carpenter’s records revealed more than 12,000 different locations.

How the Towers Track Your Location

Tracking location information is not necessarily new technology. Local authorities track this information through the same cell phone towers that relay phone calls. The use of this information had slowly become a concern with lawmakers who represent diverse views within the political spectrum. Some policymakers are concerned about the potential violation of civil liberties while others prioritize the opportunity to catch criminals with concrete evidence. Some people misunderstand that cell phone location data can indefinitely place a person at a specific place at a specific time. That’s not always the case. According to a Federal Communication Commissioners’ report, cell towers do not detect location as accurately as GPS. If a cell phone pings from a single cell tower, the data can only suggest a broad location. If it pings from and between multiple towers, the area of the location is made smaller. As one TechDirt article explains, “It turns out cell phone location data is not even close to accurate, but everyone falls for it.”

What This Means for You

In this Supreme Court case ruling, it was decided that police need a probable cause to request a search warrant for cell phone data. This checks and balances system should decrease the rate of unconstitutional searches while preserving this option for law enforcement in cases that location data is relevant and needed. It’s also important to remember that cell phone location data isn’t always used to build a case against a suspect. It could also reveal critical information to exonerate the innocent. Like all developing technology, we should carefully consider potential pitfalls alongside advantages. For now, your cell phone data, including location data, is considered as protected by your rights to privacy as your home, car, or office. Law enforcement can still access these personal caches of information-but only with a search warrant. Once a warrant is obtained, however, an ever-growing amount of data is available for recovery through the fields of e-discovery and digital forensics. Striking a balance between privacy and sanctioned data useage seems to be the best compromise for society at large.

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