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Supreme Court to Weigh Accessibility of Cell Location Data

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Jun 5, 2017, 4:53 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   @zeman_e

The Supreme Court today said it will hear a case regarding whether or not law enforcement can access certain types of cell location data without a warrant. As it stands today, the government does not need to get a warrant when seeking location and other information held by phone companies. In a 1979 court case, Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court decided that a suspect had no reasonable expectation of privacy (with respect to his location) because he willingly dialed phone numbers into his home phone, thus providing the phone company, a third party, with that data. Personal data held by third parties is not as protected as information held by the actual suspect. This third-party doctrine is still being applied today in lower courts and is what allows law enforcement to seek suspects' historical movements from cell phone companies without obtaining a warrant. Since the 1979 case, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government needs a warrant to seek GPS data, as well as to search cell phones of suspects. A new case, Carpenter v. United States, argues that the third-party doctrine is, essentially, outdated and that law enforcement seeking such data should be required to obtain a warrant as it would for GPS data. More specifically, Carpenter alleges that gleaning location data from a third party without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. Given the varying decisions on this matter from lower courts, the Supreme Court will hear Carpenter v. United States to provide the needed guidance moving forward.

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