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What the Supreme Court’s cellphone location data ruling could mean for your digital privacy

The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that police generally need a search warrant to track a suspect's movement through cellphone records -- a limited victory for privacy advocates. That decision stems from a string of Radio Shack robberies, and the use of data that helped lead to arrests and convictions. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the case.

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  • John Yang:

    Now more on the Supreme Court ruling we told you about earlier about how closely the government can keep track of suspects.

    As Jeffrey Brown reports, the issue involves location data, typically transmitted by cell phones.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In late 2010, an armed robbery occurred at a RadioShack in Detroit. Over the next three months, eight more stores in the area were robbed.

    Data obtained by law enforcement from cell phone companies helped lead to arrests and convictions.

    Today, the Supreme Court ruled on an appeal of the case.

    Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” was there to hear the decision.

    Welcome back.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Thanks, Jeff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s worth adding that one of the ironies of this case is that one thing they were stealing were cell phones.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That’s correct. It is.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, what kind of data are we talking about?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    OK.

    We’re talking about cell site location data. When you lose your cell phone for a call, it pings a cell tower, and your cell phone company keeps a record of where those pings landed. Police want the cell phone — cell site location records, because, once they know where the cell tower is, they have a sort of reasonable idea of where the cell phone was used.

    And it was that information that led them to Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in this case.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And then the legal issue becomes whether that is an unreasonable search, right?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That’s right. Did the police need a warrant?

    They actually had an order under a federal law that makes it easier for them to access certainty kinds of information. A warrant is harder to get.

    And the court today in a 5-4 decision by the chief justice said the Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to get a warrant if they want to access those records, because you and I have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He was joined by the four what we refer to as the liberal justices.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A little bit unusual coalition.

    What was the argument from the other side?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Justice Kennedy wrote one of the dissents. And he said that he felt this type of information was no different from the so-called business record and other information that the court, back in the ’70s, actually said that police don’t need a warrant for, because, if you voluntarily give business records, bank records to a third party, you have no expectation that the information will remain private.

    It’s called the third-party doctrine. And the chief justice said, wait a minute, these cell site location records are not like those records.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the chief justice also tried to say this was a limited ruling, right?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Yes, he did.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But this is a very fast-developing area of law, right, digital and privacy in the digital age.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, what are the implications for the rest of us?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    OK.

    There are some who believe that this — sort of design to pass for protection of privacy in e-mails and text messages. The chief did emphasize the narrowness. He said, we’re talking about historical cell site location data, not data that is collected in real time by the police, and also that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement, if evidence is going to be destroyed, somebody’s kidnapped, there’s a bomb threat.

    That also limits the ruling, he said. But he very much has an eye on the future. He talked about this digital revolution that we’re undergoing. And the dissenters felt that the principles in this decision will open the door to a lot more litigation and actually endanger certain law enforcement investigations.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, very briefly, in this case, the conviction goes back to a lower court?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    It does. Basically, the court is saying you can’t use the evidence because you didn’t have a warrant. It will be up to the lower court to see, as well as the prosecutors, if they want to try this fellow again without that evidence.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Marcia Coyle, as always, thank you.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, Jeff.

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