Don’t track me, bro! US Supreme court limits cell location tracking without a warrant

In a clear win for proponents of data privacy, the Supreme Court issued a decision that requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to track individuals through cell records “in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party”. 

It’s not a complete protection, but it goes a long way toward setting precedent that cell phone data should be protected by the Fourth amendment.

This decision is the result of the Carpenter vs. United States case, where in 2011, Carpenter was convicted of robbery after the police gathered location data from his cellular carrier. It eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, where the decision was ultimately made. 

The ruling isn’t without limits however, as Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, stated that the government will still be able to subpoena cell records in the “overwhelming majority of investigations”. Instead, a warrant will only be required when the suspect “has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party.”

Crime vs privacy 

This is a huge win for privacy advocates, who have said that the government has a tendency to go too far to get data. And, in a world where companies like Apple continue to protect the data of their customers, it’s nice to see the courts follow suit, if only slightly.

This decision leaves a lot of room for the United States government to subpoena data, however especially as the Court decided that law enforcement will still be able to gather data without a warrant in cases where they “need to pursue a fleeing suspect, protect individuals who are threatened with imminent harm, or prevent the imminent destruction of evidence”.

The Court did, however, state that it’s important to continue protecting Fourth Amendment rights as technology moves forward, stating that “Here the progress of science has afforded law enforcement a powerful new tool to carry out its important responsibilities”. But at the same time, it’s important to keep that tool in check as “this tool risks Government encroachment of the sort the Framers after consulting the lessons of history, drafted the Fourth Amendment to prevent”. 

This decision still sets good precedent for the protection of citizens privacy, something that seems to be waning everyday otherwise.

Bill Thomas

Bill Thomas (Twitter) is TechRadar's computing editor. They are fat, queer and extremely online. Computers are the devil, but they just happen to be a satanist. If you need to know anything about computing components, PC gaming or the best laptop on the market, don't be afraid to drop them a line on Twitter or through email.