Law enforcement will require a warrant, but private parties still have free access.
The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a decision that is a massive win for privacy. Law enforcement will need warrants in order to obtain historical location data from our cell phones. Unfortunately, the decision is only pointed at the government, and we should all still feel uneasy about it.
The decision came down with a 5-4 split in the Carpenter v. United States case, reversing a descision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The original case dates back to a Detroit robbery in 2011 in which investigating police obtained months worth of cell phone location data on the defendant. The argument before the supreme court was that this violated defendant Timothy Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment protections of unreasonable search and seizure. The Supreme Court agrees, and now authorities will be unable to legally obtain cell phone location history without a warrant.
This decision has no impact on live location tracking, and more importantly, only affects law enforcement, which should leave most of us feeling quite uneasy. It was only a short time ago that news of private companies being granted access to user location data, and selling this information, came to light. Once these services started making headlines, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint ended their contracts with these companies. Companies such as LocationSmart and Securus Technologies were selling location data to advertisers for targeted advertising. This should come as no surprise in today’s technology world, however they went even further than this “service”.
Some of these location aggregator companies offered a paid service to locate any cell phone. One even provided a “try before you buy” offer which allowed you to test the system and gain a live location of anyone’s cell phone. While user’s of the aforementioned carriers can feel safe now that these companies have ended their relationships with these countries, we should also be very concerned that this decision was entirely reactionary to the brief headline stories of the abuse of location data. This is a business decision based on user concern, but there is nothing illegal about the services as of now, and any of these carriers could easily turn around and start selling their data once again.
This Supreme Court decision is a great first step for privacy, however, it falls very short by only affecting lawful authorities. Many of us take for granted that advertisers have our location, however what is to stop these advertisers from selling our information to private parties? As of right now, in the U.S., there is nothing to stem that possibility.