June 5 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday to hear a case that could have far-reaching effects on citizens' privacy when it comes to the availability of their cellphone data to police.
The issue at hand is whether law enforcement officers need a warrant to access phone location data that's kept by cellular companies. Authorities often use such data in criminal investigations, because a person's cellphone location can be pinpointed by examining which cellular towers the devices "ping" on.
The Supreme Court will hear Timothy Carpenter v. United States, brought by a Michigan man who objects to police using his phone's location data to link him to several armed robberies. He was convicted and sentenced to 116 years in prison. Numerous other criminal U.S. prosecutions have been based on the same type of data.
Law enforcement advocates and lower courts have held that a 1979 Supreme Court ruling says no warrant is needed because Americans can't claim privacy for information that's held by companies as part of a normal business record. The 6th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last year that phone companies are required to give police the information if they can prove it's relevant in an investigation.
Opponents like Carpenter's attorneys argue that ruling is outdated because it was made at a time when cellphones weren't even in use yet. The issue, they say, needs another look considering how rampant cellphones are today. There is no Supreme Court decision that specifically addresses the privacy rights of cellphone location data.
"The vast majority of Americans carry cellphones with them in their everyday lives, and the question posed by this case is whether the traditional protections of the Fourth Amendment -- including a warrant -- will apply to prevent the pervasive location-tracking of any one of us," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nathan Wessler, who's among those representing Carpenter.
More recent Supreme Court rulings may indicate that the 1979 decision, referred to as the third-party doctrine, doesn't apply to cellphones.
Three years ago, the high court concluded that police generally need a warrant to search arrested suspects' cellphones for non-locator information like phone calls, text messages and photos. In 2012, it decided that law enforcement agencies also need a warrant to attach geo-tracking devices to suspects' vehicles -- which provide location data similar to the manner cellphones do.
At the time of the 2012 decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the third-party doctrine is "ill-suited to the digital age." The 1979 ruling was also behind the National Security Agency's massive domestic surveillance program that was exposed in 2014 by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.