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Supreme Court to decide what's required to get location records from your carrier

How to share your location in Google Maps
How to share your location in Google Maps (Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case to decide if government officers need a warrant to access your cell phone's location history. The ACLU is co-counsel in the Carpenter v United States case, which is the first of its kind to be heard by the court as previous petitions were denied.

ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project staff attorney Nathan Fred Wessler had the following to say:

Because cell phone location records can reveal countless private details of our lives, police should only be able to access them by getting a warrant based on probable cause. The time has come for the Supreme Court to make clear that the longstanding protections of the Fourth Amendment apply with undiminished force to these kinds of sensitive digital records.

The case is an appeal of a 2011 case where law enforcement obtained months worth of location data from Timothy Carpenter's cell carrier in a robbery investigation. The records cover 127 days and 12,898 separate data points were released without a probable-cause warrant.

We're hopeful that rules about how and when that data can be obtained will arise from this case.

The ACLU claims that "Police seek these kinds of cell phone location records from phone companies tens of thousands of times each year" without a warrant, but instead simply a request to the carrier. But many jurisdictions do not require a warrant to obtain such information, based on a 2015 U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court ruling.

We understand that information like location data can be a valuable tool for law enforcement and help keep us all safe. But we're hopeful that rules about how and when that data can be obtained will arise from this case.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

21 Comments
  • I thinking this time you will be on the side of the conservatives Jerry. Actually , maybe they will be on your side.
  • This is why I hate labels. I want police to have this data when they need it, and when they can prove they need it. I don't want them to just ask and receive with no procedure in place.
  • 2nd that, Jerry
  • Like it or not labels are how we differieant ourselves, but I hear ya. Totally agree on the last sentence.
  • No one is 100% conservative or 100% liberal, so the labels are meaningless garbage meant to divide people.
  • I find it fascinating that you always complain about the appearance of politics on this site or in the comments, yet you rush to label someone.
  • Erik, I can't tell what your position is on this subject by you mentioning conservatives, but generally everyday people that identify as conservative (especially the libertarians) and even progressive (the real ones that follower Sanders, not the fake neo-liberals like Clinton) agree on upholding the constitution, reigning in the NSA and the police state, and requiring agencies to get INDIVIDUAL warrants approved on a CASE BY CASE basis (you know, what the 4th amendment says). It's the establishment politicians (largely the conservative Republicans like Trump, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnel, but not exclusive to them thanks to Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi on the Democratic side) that are the ones that support giving the government more unchecked power.
  • I don't see how they can stop it . People already share everything on social media. From what they eat to who and what they did every waking moment.
  • Specious reasoning. Look up the words voluntary versus involuntary.
  • Problem is where the information is handled off to and where the data is stored. Those are the bigger concerns. Making sure the data stays classified and secured and doesn't drop into the wrong hands. Sort of like with red like cameras and LPR recognition systems. I have mixed feelings about this in general. I do believe that they should have a write to the information, but when it is a general requirement of our constitutional system, (which is broken) that is a procedure required to follow in the criminal justice system to follow of obtaining a warrant, those rules should be followed as such by law enforcement. As we holdnour law enforcement to a higher standard. As it stands if I went to my carrier and requested transcript copies of all my cellular calls,data and sms I would have to hire a attorney and subpeona those copied transcripts through the court. Me as a person I have to follow the law. As compared to law enforcement, that wouldn't have to follow the law.
  • I must have been doing something wrong; I've requested location history several times for tracking credit card skimming suspects movements and tying them in with victim card usage locations, and I have ALWAYS needed a warrant. I've never gotten upset with being told I needed one; it's part of the job and it gets to the point when you do it enough, they become easy to write and articulate. On top of that, it is always good practice to get a warrant for anything remotely questionable. Many times, even with consent, getting a warrant is a good idea (consent is easy to argue in court - a warrant isn't).
  • This'll definitely be a case to keep the eye on.
  • It needs to be a missing person, suicidal subject, homicide, or fear of bodily harm to another, kidnapping. These situations should be available to the police. I happen to know they are easily obtained without a warrant but a simple request to carriers.
    These are extigent circumstances and need to be articulated by the requesting agency. Requests for investigating a crime should require probable cause and therefore a warrant.
    Seems to me the case discussed was an overreach.
  • Doesn't matter the reason. It could even be to investigate a suspected terrorist, it doesn't matter. Get a warrant signed by a judge that specifically states who and what is to be obtained and why the agency wants it and reach back out to the carrier in 30 mins. Emergency warrants can be filled out and signed in a very short time, and if the judge agrees it's a lawful and reasonable request, police and federal investigators will then get their access to someone's private information with NO negative consequences. The 4th amendment is a win-win all around.
  • Ever been on the other end of the phone with a suicidal party who won't tell you where they are at? Had a family member call you and say their loved one threatened to kill themselves? Waiting 30 minutes and probably longer in the middle of the night isn't going to help. Getting location information from the cell carriers takes jumping through hoops as it is in these cases and that is with the most cooperative ones. Some want a form filled out that they first fax to you and then you have to fax back and then wait while they search through a database for the information. There needs to be times when exigent circumstances are enough to get the information. Suicidal person, abducted person are just a couple when the seconds count and waiting for a judge to sign a warrant simply isn't acceptable. I'm all for privacy and think people need more of it in this day and age but, I'll let you explain to the family why we couldn't help them faster when their loved one is found dead.
  • Believe it or not, judges can sign a warrant in a matter of minutes nowdays because most information is sent through a secure server that is within their department for paperwork. That is why you know see a lot of courts transitioning to e-casing. It reduces their clutter and they can sign documents within seconds as compared to days and sometimes weeks, compared to how they use to file them.
  • So, to get this straight; the 4th Amendment is great except for the times that it is inconvenient and interferes with LAW ENFORCEMENT from doing it's job, right? Funny, I always thought that a Constitutional Amendment is indeed LAW and therefore must be upheld. Silly me!
    And, yes I have been on the calling end of two of those calls and would still expect the cop to do the LAWful thing and get a damned warrant.
  • Do you want a life saved? I'm not saying that the 4th amendment is to be overlooked at all. Try finding a judge awake at 2am to get a warrant signed to get the location of a cell phone of someone wanting to commit suicide or has been abducted. I'm not asking for any other information and don't care about it, I just want to find the person that is in trouble as quickly as possible. By the way dialing 911 and getting a location is not as accurate as you think, the system my give us an radius of a few thousand meters (we're talking miles in this case) and in most cases the first location given is the cell tower and a second request for location has to be made (automated through the push of a button) to get a more accurate location. For the record I'm not a cop, I'm a dispatcher and I have one rule, everyone goes home at the end of the day. Whether it is a cop, firefighter, EMT or civilian, I just want everyone to end their day in the same condition they started it (or better). I hope your two calls ended with a favorable outcome.
  • This is earth. No such thing as privacy. Huemans bicker about the most trivial things, the wrong people are in charge and the wrong people continue to play the game.....WAKE UP! Its all TRAsh
  • With all the recent terrorist attacks here in the UK, I wish the police had more powers to tap and track phones of suspected terrorists
  • But but but, I have NOTHING to hide