Groups Call on Supreme Court to Consider Law Enforcement Access to Cell Location Data

Several privacy groups have joined The Constitution Project in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider one of two cases to determine whether the Constitution requires police to obtain a warrant before requesting cell phone location history records from a telephone company.

In two friend-of-the-court briefs filed on Oct. 28, the groups noted a 2014 decision in which the Supreme Court recognized that “the ubiquity of cell phones, combined with their capacity to hold vast quantities of detailed personal information—potentially the ‘sum of an individual’s private life’—makes cell phones so qualitatively and quantitatively different from their analog counterparts as to require a warrant prior to search.”

The briefs point out that the private information available from a cell phone is not limited only to the data stored on the device, but also includes the information about location of the cell tower to which the device connected at any given date and time, so-called cell site location information or CSLI. Equipped with CSLI, police can now not only place suspects at specific crime scenes, but can also reconstruct almost anyone’s movements for many months in the past. Law enforcement routinely requests cell service providers to deliver this location information without first obtaining a probable cause warrant.

“The dramatic increase in the number of cell phones and cell sites and the amount of detailed, sensitive location data they generate, combined with the quantity and extent of law enforcement demands for this data, show that it is time for this Court to address the Fourth Amendment privacy implications of CSLI,” the groups wrote.

TCP was joined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms in filing the two briefs. The cases are Thomas Carpenter v United States (No. 16-402) and Aaron Graham v United States (No. 16-6308).

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