Supreme Court tackles cellphone record search and right to privacy

BUFFALO, N.Y (WIVB) – The U.S. Supreme Court weighed privacy rights this week in a case that centers around whether police can obtain a suspect’s cellphone records to track travels for long periods of time.

Some are calling it the most important digital privacy case in decades.

“It’s an interesting case for everyone who has a cellphone, everyone who lives a normal life because their privacy rights can be affected,” said News 4 Legal Analyst Terry Connors.

The case, Carpenter vs. USA, involves the use of cellphone records to capture the location of a man who was convicted of robbery.

Specifically, authorities gathered several months’ worth of cell-site records, indicating which cell towers a phone connected with.

Attorneys for the petitioner, Timothy Carpenter, argue it was a search and therefore required a warrant.

A federal appeals court upheld his conviction.

Now, this Fourth Amendment question has landed in the lap of the nation’s highest court.

At issue — whether it’s constitutional for authorities to seize and search cellphone records that reveal a person’s location and movements without a warrant.

Some of the justices expressed concerns during oral arguments on Wednesday.

“You bought a cellphone because you need a cellphone, but you didn’t know you could be tracked. Maybe in the future overhear your phone conversations. Your data is all contained within those cell phones. That’s where the issue of privacy comes into play,” Connors explained.

An attorney for the petitioner in the case argues that the records give the government a “time machine” allowing authorities to track a suspect’s movements, and urged the court to set a higher standard, requiring a show of probable cause.

“What they’re looking for is the cell tower location information. And when they find that based upon your cellphone and the computer within your cellphone, where it pings, they can say where you were at a particular date and a particular time,” said Connors.

Government lawyers claim that information should not be private because cellphone users know how their phones work and give up that right to privacy voluntarily.

Terry Connors added, “The government says we’re not searching you. We’re going to a third party, and that third party is going to provide us this information which you voluntarily gave to them. This isn’t a search. It’s an inference from a search and we don’t need a warrant for it.”

Buffalo police Captain Jeff Rinaldo says it’s a “tricky area,” especially since the technology is constantly evolving, leaving more questions for the court.

“I think the majority of law enforcement’s interest in these technology devices is the content that’s held within the device, and that has been clearly established as needing a warrant if you don’t have their permission,” Rinaldo said. “So that’s a little bit more clear-cut; a black and white issue versus not really caring about any of the content on the phone, but more so where the phone may or may not have been at particular point in time. That is definitely a gray area.”

Courts have had conflicted rulings on whether a warrant is required to access cellphone data.

The justices’ decision on the case is expected to be announced next year.

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