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Supreme Court takes Up Privacy In Tracking Cell Phones
Updated December 1, 2017 7:21 AM
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(WASHINGTON) - In a landmark case on privacy in the digital age, a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested Wednesday that the court could extend Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure to block law enforcement from tracking cellphone location data without a warrant.

Gary Gately, of Talk Media News reports, justices who questioned the practice noted that never before had the government been able to track citizens' movements for long periods after the fact - in this case before the court, 127 days of locations for every incoming and outgoing call as authorities investigated a man in a series of robberies.

"Americans, I still think, want to avoid Big Brother," said Justice Sonya Sotomayor. "They want to avoid the concept that government will be able to see and locate you anywhere you are at any point in time."

She sharply questioning the government's lawyer, who argued the records could be seized without warrants because the cell customer voluntary disclosed the information

"Is it -- do you really believe that people expect that the government will be able to do that without probable cause and a warrant?" Sotomayor asked.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who joined the court's four liberal members in suggesting the Fourth Amendment could cover tracking cell locations, said before the digital era, "The government's never had this the ability to go back even for 24 hours and basically test everybody, everybody in the whole community or anyone who happened to be there. "

But the views of Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy reflected the government's arguments that customers voluntarily provide information to mobile companies.

Alito noted law enforcement can access bank records without warrants, adding, "But why is that more sensitive than bank ecords that show, for example, periodicals to which a person -- to which a person subscribes or hotels where a person has stayed or entertainment establishments -- establishments that a person has visited?" Alito asked

Arguing for the Trump administration, Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben pointed out that the cell tracking is allowed under the "third-party doctrine," in which a person who shares information or records with a "third party" such as a business gives up any reasonable expectation that the information will remain private.

"The technology here is new, but the legal principles the court has articulated under the Fourth Amendment are not," Dreeben said.

The case before the justices, Carpenter v. U.S., involves Timothy Carpenter, who appealed a lower court conviction - upheld by a federal appeals court - for stealing cellphones from Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and Michigan in 2010 and 2011.

Carpenter argued FBI agents violated his Fourth Amendment rights by getting his cellphone location data from MetroPCS and Sprint. The information helped lead to his conviction,and he was sentenced to 116 years in prison for armed robbery.

Nathan Wessler, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Carpenter, told the justices upholding the appeals court decision would enable law enforcement to search any data a third party has access to, even emails and photos on a server.

Tech companies including Google, Facebook, Verizon and Microsoft filed amicus briefs in support of the ACLU suit.

In another amicus brief, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined 19 other media organizations arguing that allowing cell tracking without warrants would tell law enforcement locations of reporters and sources, jeopardizing source confidentiality.

The court will issue a decision in Carpenter v. United States by June.

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