Today's ruling separated mobile devices from earlier case law, which was predominately cited in cases surrounding the acquisition of financial records (United States v. Miller 425 US 435 1976) or phone numbers (Smith v. Maryland 442 USA 735 1979), according to a report by Motherboard from 2016. The ruling will have profound effects on law enforcement and the government's ability to retroactively obtain personally identifying information - like your general location at a given time, as determined by your cell phone service provider - without a warrant. The majority opinion also cited the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures".
In a 5-4 decision in Carpenter v. A lower court ruled, however, that since Carpenter's cell phone data had already been shared with his wireless carriers, Carpenter had no reasonable expectation of privacy. "In light of the deeply revealing nature of CSLI, its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of Fourth Amendment protection".
The court struck down the idea that cell phone users voluntarily "share" their data, noting that "carrying [a cell phone] is indispensable to participation in modern society".
Butler said the government can track you everywhere you go.
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". "Sprint Corporation and its competitors are not your typical witnesses". The Supreme Court said yes, but stressed that its decision is narrow.
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Roberts does not often line up with his liberal colleagues against a unified front of conservative justices, but digital-age privacy cases can cross ideological lines, as when the court unanimously said in 2014 that a warrant is needed before police can search the cellphone of someone they've just arrested.
The decision today was actually a reversal of a previous ruling from two lower courts. Therefore, the court concluded, authorities need to obtain a warrant before obtaining historical cell phone location data.
"There has been a seismic shift in technology and also in the implications for privacy since the 1970s when most of these cases were decided", Butler said.
The administration relied in part on a 1979 Supreme Court decision that treated phone records differently than the conversation in a phone call, for which a warrant generally is required. "The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment's protections". "The question is can they force you to provide your passcode or can they force the cell phone to provide passcode so they can search the cell phone".