Supreme Court to Weigh Case Which May Extend Fourth Amendment Protections to Searches of Location Data Archives

Posted on June 15, 2017

According to a new story from The New York Times, the US Supreme Court has agreed to consider a case which could decide whether or not Fourth Amendment protections are extended to law enforcement searches of past location data records. In the case, Carpenter v. United States, the plaintiff argues that the government must secure a search warrant to obtain past location data records from a telecommunications provider rather than simply presenting a statement contending that such records are “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation,” as the latter criterion for approval is inconsistent with protections guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment. 

Currently, the lower legal threshold governing law enforcement’s ability to secure prior phone location records stems from the 1979 Smith v. Maryland ruling, which holds that personal information or (by extension) data which is willingly given to a private third-party is not subject to warrant requirements under the Fourth Amendment, as the individual has tacitly or explicitly agreed to permit another entity to view and process it by nature of entering a voluntary transaction with that entity. In this instance, under Smith v. Maryland, location data is considered willingly shared with a telecommunications provider because the data is inherently required to provide the service–in order to continue serving a consistent connection for receiving text messages, calls, and other communications to subscribers, cellular base stations must constantly reassess the precise location of all cellular devices in range, usually every one or two minutes. This location data is requested and logged regardless of whether or not GPS functionality or location services are enabled on an individual device, as the base station must be able to locate the device to deliver messages sent to and from it on demand. 

In its ruling to uphold the validity of law enforcement’s request for past location data, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that as Smith v. Maryland is still the prevailing legal precedent governing this type of data, and only the Supreme Court has the authority to abrogate it, it was not the Fourth Circuit Court’s place to contradict the existing precedent. Privacy advocates are hopeful that the case will impel the court to align past location data with Fourth Amendment safeguards, as it has already held that requests for real-time location data and searches of the data stored on devices is subject to such safeguards. 

You can read the full story from The New York Times here