US Supreme Court Considers
Limits on Government in Key Privacy Case
November 30, 2017 4:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court
signaled Wednesday it may be open to new limits on the
government's ability to track someone's movements by accessing
data on that person's cellphone.
A case before the high court could result in a landmark decision
in the ongoing debate over civil liberties protections in an era
of rapid technological change.
At issue is whether law enforcement will be able to access
cellphone data that can reveal a person's whereabouts without
having to first obtain a court-issued search warrant.
The case stems from the conviction of Timothy Carpenter for a
series of robberies back in 2010 and 2011. Prosecutors were able
to obtain cellphone records that indicated his location over a
period of months, information that proved crucial to his
Get a warrant
On Wednesday, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union
argued that law enforcement should be required to obtain a
court-ordered search warrant before obtaining such information.
They also argued that allowing law enforcement to access the
cellphone data without a warrant would violate the prohibition
on unreasonable search and seizures contained in the Fourth
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"It is impossible to go about our daily lives without leaving a
trail of digital breadcrumbs that reveal where we have been over
time, what we have done, who we spent time with," said ACLU
attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who spoke to reporters outside
the Supreme Court following oral arguments. "It is time for the
court, we think, to update Fourth Amendment doctrine to provide
reasonable protections today."
Some of the justices also raised concerns about privacy in the
"Most Americans, I think, still want to avoid Big Brother,"
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who often sides with the liberal wing
of the court, said.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who often sides with conservatives
on the court, said the central question was whether the
cellphone information should be accessible to the government
"without a warrant."
Privacy versus security
Justice Department lawyers defended the process of obtaining the
data without a court warrant, arguing that even though the
technology has changed, the need to rapidly obtain such
information for law enforcement has not. The government also
argued that privacy rights are not at issue because law
enforcement agencies can obtain information from
telecommunications companies that record transactions with their
Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy indicated they were
open to the government's position in the case.
Legal experts say whichever way the court eventually rules could
have an enormous impact on privacy rights in the digital age.
don't think that this is a world that anybody anticipated a
couple of decades ago," Stanford University law professor David
Alan Sklansky said via Skype. "These new data capabilities are
rapidly increasing the things that government can do for good
and for evil. And figuring out how we allow the government to
make full use of these new capabilities, without endangering
political liberties and endangering the privacy that is
necessary for us to have the kind of flourishing democratic
social life we want, is a huge ongoing challenge."
Sklansky added that the United States "has historically been a
leader in thinking about privacy rights, particularly with
regard to privacy from the government."
And he predicted that other countries will be closely following
the high court case as they wrestle with similar conflicts.
"This is a global problem. Countries around the world are trying
to figure out how to deal with it. I think that people in all
democratic countries should care about how the United States
winds up resolving this question," he said.
Twice in recent years the Supreme Court has ruled in major cases
related to privacy and technology and both times ruled against
The court ruled in 2012 that a warrant is required to place a
GPS tracking device on a vehicle. And in 2014, the high court
ruled that a warrant is required to search a cellphone seized
during an arrest.
A decision in the current case, known as Carpenter v. U.S., is
expected sometime before the end of June.