Supreme Court Ruling: Obtaining Phone Tower Records Requires Warrant

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement agencies will need a warrant to obtain mobile phone tower records. The court’s decision, which passed in a 5-4 vote, does away with the guilty till proven innocent handling of cellphone users and increases digital privacy rights of cell phone users.

Enforcement agencies are able to reveal a user’s location using phone tower records. The method came to light recently after a US citizen, by the name of Timothy Ivory Carpenter, was under trial; his attorneys argued that the procedure violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment it should be noted upholds “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In the case involving Carpenter, law enforcement had used tower records, without a warrant, to show that he was present in proximity to a string of armed robberies.

Going forward, law enforcement agencies will have to convince a judge with a “first showing of probable cause” to get a warrant to request mobile phone data.

While privacy advocates celebrate the decision, the road is still long. The decision was a “narrow” one, according to the majority of justices that voted. The ruling, for example, does not cover other “conventional” surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras or business records that might reveal the location for instance. The ruling also excludes collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security.

But at least it plugs a gap, though small, in the growing invasion of privacy measures carried out by the state. Up until now, cases involving the collection of cell phone metadata from mobile carriers without a warrant numbered in the thousands each year.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Nathan Freed Wessler had this to say about the ruling:

“This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age. The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life. The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment’s protections.”

The ruling does give privacy law a badly needed update indeed, but one can’t help to wonder about the effectiveness of such decisions, especially when put in the context of past shady behaviors of law enforcement agencies and surveillance rings such as 5 Eyes.