Fear of this unsafe imbalance of power led to the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which broadly requires a warrant for searches and seizures by the government.
"We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier's database of physical location information", Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court's majority opinion.
The court ruled Friday in the case of Timothy Carpenter, who was sentenced to 116 years in prison for his role in a string of robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in MI and Ohio.
The ACLU argued that because cell phone location records offer a wealth of private details about people's lives - such as their personal relationships, visits to the doctor, or religious practices - they should be covered by the Fourth Amendment, which protects against "unreasonable" searches and seizures by law enforcement.
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As a result, he said, "when the government tracks the location of a cellphone it achieves near flawless surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone's user". "The government argued that by "sharing" information about his location with his cell phone company, the defendant had lost any expectation of privacy, but the Court rejects that argument, finding that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy and that a warrant was required to access information about his location derived from cell towers". "Sprint Corporation and its competitors are not your typical witnesses". Kate Shaw, a law professor and Supreme Court expert, told ABC News Friday's decision is consistent with previous cases about the Fourth Amendment and how it applies to the digital age. In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito predicted the ruling will "cause upheaval" when it comes to information requests in investigations, noting that "treating an order to produce like an actual search, as today's decision does, is revolutionary". The government's interpretation of the Third Party Doctrines saw a cell phone service provider as a legitimate third party, regardless of the fact that customers can't use these devices at all without communicating that information.
This is a huge win for privacy advocates, who have said that the government has a tendency to go too far to get data.
According to Greenville attorney Serenity Norman with Capital to Coast Law Group, the high court is responding to the advancements in technology. Therefore, the court concluded, authorities need to obtain a warrant before obtaining historical cell phone location data.
"The government's position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter's location but also everyone else's, not for a short period but for years and years", Roberts wrote. "Digital data is just different fundamentally than analog, old-school phone records or bank records".