On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about whether police should be required to get a warrant before accessing location records for a suspect’s cellphone. Law enforcement has been gaining access to these records by getting an ordinary court order, which requires a lower standard of evidence than a warrant.
The government does not believe people have any legitimate expectation of privacy about the locations of their cellphones. The location records are kept by cellphone service providers, so the information simply isn’t private. Location records are merely third-party business records. That means that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures don’t apply.
The plaintiff, represented by the ACLU, contends that government agents such as police should not be allowed to access such detailed information without greater oversight by the courts. Since many people carry their cellphones with them, knowing the exact location of a person’s cellphone often means knowing the person’s exact location at most times of the day. The information obtained through location records is simply too revealing to allow police to have such easy access to it.
In the case before the court, police were tipped off by a jailhouse informant that a certain man might be responsible for several armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in the Detroit area and northwestern Ohio. Using only a simple court order, the police collected 127 days’ worth of location records. These records can match a particular phone to the cell towers it has connected to, according to the Associated Press.
That court order was obtained using a lower legal standard than probable cause, which is what would be required to get a warrant. Probable cause essentially means good reason to believe a specific person has committed a crime.
However, courts around the nation have disagreed on whether the amount of information available in the digital age puts Americans’ privacy at risk. In recent years, the high court has acknowledged the issue in some rulings. In 2014, for example, it held that police must get a warrant before searching suspects’ cellphones after an arrest.
Should probable cause be the standard? Should police get warrants before seeking these records? Remember, while police may access your location data by going through your phone provider, if you are arrested here in State College, you do not have to unlock your phone for the police just because they ask you to. This is especially true if police are questioning you and you have not yet been arrested for anything.