US restricts police on cell phone location data

Is this a sign that the US justice system is taking steps to make sure that law enforcement agencies don't leverage technology to over-reach?
26 June 2018

Chief Justice John Roberts. Source: Reuters

Anyone who has watched American TV shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, or Brooklyn Nine-Nine knowns how common it is for police officers to secure the (past) cell phone location of suspects.

It’s usually how they “nail the bad guy” and protect and serve innocent citizens.

However, a new Supreme Court ruling is going to make that much more difficult in real life, marking a victory for digital privacy advocates and a setback for law enforcement authorities.

This ruling, however, isn’t applicable to real-time cell phone location data.

The fine print of the ruling

According to Reuters, a 5-4 ruling in court said police will generally need a court-approved warrant to secure (cell phone location) data (of suspects).

This sets a higher legal hurdle than previously existed under federal law.

Obtaining such data without a warrant from wireless carriers, according to the court, will amount to an unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

In the ruling written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the court decided in favor of Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in several armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and Michigan with the help of past cell phone location data that linked him to the crime scenes.

Roberts stressed that the ruling did not resolve other hot-button digital privacy fights, including whether police need warrants to access real-time cell phone location information to track criminal suspects.

The ruling also has no bearing on “traditional surveillance techniques” such as security cameras or on data collection for national security purposes, he added.

Justice system against the Big Brother?

The ruling has been of particular interest to tech companies and citizens concerned about the long arm of the law and the implications of the growing power of surveillance-technologies like artificial intelligence and facial recognition.

In effect, people fear that the law will take on a different role in the future, and build law enforcement entities that make Big Brother from George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘1984’ a reality.

And although it seems like the justice system is making efforts to prevent that, not everyone agrees with its approach.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, a former prosecutor, told Reuters that the ruling could do “far more harm than good.”

The decision “guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely,” Alito added.