In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided today that location information for cellphones cannot be collected by law enforcement without a warrant. In doing so, the court relies on a cell phone user’s “expectation of privacy” in his or her physical location, as well as in information held by third parties. Previous cases involving data held by third parties has not necessarily been so favorable, particularly where the user understands the the data will be turned over to another party, or where the data is knowingly shared with the third party. Unfortunately, “understands” and “knowingly” are loaded concepts, since on some level, all cell phone users understand that the cell provider collects a lot of information about them whether they want it collected or not.
The court appears to distinguish location records from “business records” based on other cases which have limited the tracking of individuals’ locations by law enforcement, and the court goes to some effort to distinguish location data from other “business records” collected by cell phone providers in essentially the same way.
In short, on first read, this case appears to be narrowly applicable to location data only, but it’s still a win on the privacy front for end users.
Photo courtesy of By Mack Sennett Studios – Publicity still from 1914 film “In the Clutches of the Gang”, via , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4489310