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Supreme Court restricts police on cellphone location data in America

Updated: Jul 23, 2018

This is a bigger deal than meets the eye. Apps have been a proxy to monetize mobile carrier data indirectly. Eg Uber is effectively reselling customer and driver location. Although beyond my expertise my view is that this case getting to the supreme court level allowed for several aspects of the mobile experience to be evaluated from a legal perspective.

Down below is also the actual SCOTUS decision link and syllabus. If you are hardcore mobile person then this is a good read.

“Today’s decision rightly recognizes the need to protect the highly sensitive location data from our cellphones, but it also provides a path forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future cases – from our emails, smart home appliances and technology that is yet to be invented,” said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Nate Wessler, who represents Carpenter.

Reuters: Supreme Court restricts police on cellphone location data

In fact, historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than the GPS monitoring considered in Jones: They give the Government near perfect surveillance and allow it to travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the five-year retention poli- cies of most wireless carriers.

Cell phones perform their wide and growing variety of functions by con- tinuously connecting to a set of radio antennas called “cell sites.” Each time a phone connects to a cell site, it generates a time-stamped record known as cell-site location information (CSLI). Wireless carri- ers collect and store this information for their own business purposes. Here, after the FBI identified the cell phone numbers of several rob- bery suspects, prosecutors were granted court orders to obtain the suspects’ cell phone records under the Stored Communications Act. Wireless carriers produced CSLI for petitioner Timothy Carpenter’s phone, and the Government was able to obtain 12,898 location points cataloging Carpenter’s movements over 127 days—an average of 101 data points per day. Carpenter moved to suppress the data, arguing that the Government’s seizure of the records without obtaining a warrant supported by probable cause violated the Fourth Amend- ment. The District Court denied the motion, and prosecutors used the records at trial to show that Carpenter’s phone was near four of the robbery locations at the time those robberies occurred. Carpen- ter was convicted. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that Carpen- ter lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location infor- mation collected by the FBI because he had shared that information with his wireless carriers.

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