It could determine how the government handles all kinds of sensitive information about you.
There’s a good chance that while you’re reading this, your cellphone is either in your pocket or within arm’s reach. That phone helps produce tons of identifying data about you—and where you are located. The future privacy of that information may depend on a landmark case that the Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear. Carpenter v. United States asks whether the government can get records from phone companies showing the location of customers without first obtaining a warrant. It centers on a man in Michigan named Timothy Carpenter who was convicted of six robberies after his phone company turned over his location data to authorities.
Carpenter’s case could have broad ramifications for people across the country. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of surveillance law hinges on how the Supreme Court rules in this case,” Orin Kerr, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, wrote in the Washington Post. Here are some more reasons why you should be following this one:
1. Your location data can reveal deeply personal things about you. As you go about your day with a phone by your side, your service provider uses cell towers around your town or city to collect and retain information about where you are. “Based on that, you can infer what people are doing—whether they are stopping off at a doctor’s office or a psychiatrist’s office, going to a political rally, an abortion clinic, or an NRA office, or spending the night at home or in another neighborhood, perhaps at a lover’s house,” says Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Carpenter. “That’s really private information, and the question here is whether the Fourth Amendment requires police to go to a judge and get a probable-cause warrant.”
2. The police regularly request this data from wireless providers without warrants. Law enforcement agencies make hundreds of thousands of these record requests every year to major service providers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint. To do it, they often use a 1986 federal law called the Stored Communications Act, which says the government only needs to show the records are relevant to an investigation—if they were required to get a warrant, they’d need to show probable cause that a crime had been committed, which is more difficult. When the law was passed, not many people had cellphones; there were barely 1,000 cellphone towers in the entire country, Wessler says.