In line with Apple's stance, a new Supreme Court decision this morning has ruled that in general the government will need a warrant to collect information from wireless carriers like location data. The suspect's lawyers argued that the evidence should be thrown out due to a lack of warrant, after their client lost in lower court rulings.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that cell phone location data falls under the Fourth Amendment's search protections, barring the government from tracking cell phone users' movements by simply asking service providers for data.
"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. "While police must get a warrant when collecting CSLI to assist in the mine-run criminal investigation, the rule we set forth does not limit their ability to respond to an ongoing emergency".
The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, states that "there is a world of difference" between the kinds of business records the government could access without a warrant under previous rulings "and the exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers".
In 2014, the court held unanimously that police must generally get a warrant to search the cellphones of people they arrest.
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The legal and privacy concern was that police gathered the four months' worth of Carpenter's digital footprints without a warrant.
The administration relied in part on a 1979 Supreme Court decision that treated phone records differently than the conversation in a phone call, for which a warrant generally is required. Authorities can go to the phone company and obtain information about the numbers dialed from a home telephone without presenting a warrant.
The Supreme Court in recent years has acknowledged technology's effects on privacy. Other items people carry with them may be looked at without a warrant, after an arrest. On Friday, he returned to the metaphor to note that a phone "faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor's offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales".
Roberts wrote that "when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near flawless surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone's user, adding that "the retrospective quality of the data here gives police access to a category of information otherwise unknowable".