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Cops, cellphones and privacy at the Supreme Court

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Cops, cellphones and privacy at the Supreme Court

How hard should it be for the police to get hold of reams of data showing every place you’ve been for months? The Supreme Court will confront that question on Wednesday when it hears oral arguments in one of the biggest Fourth Amendment cases in years. In 2013, Timothy Carpenter was convicted of being the ringleader behind a series of armed robberies of cellphone stores in and around Detroit, and was sentenced to almost 116 years in prison. His conviction was secured in part based on 127 days of location data that his cellphone service provider turned over to the police, showing that his phone had been in the vicinity of several of the robberies. The police got those phone records without a warrant, which the Fourth Amendment generally requires, and which would have forced them to show they had probable cause to believe that Mr. Carpenter had committed a crime. Instead they relied on a federal law with a lower standard: “reasonable grounds to believe” that the records “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” Mr. Carpenter appealed his conviction as violating the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. He argues that the police should have to get warrants to collect long-term location data, which reveal a huge amount of private information. As a federal judge in a separate case put it, “A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.” Mr. Carpenter lost in the lower federal courts. They relied on the Supreme Court’s so-called third-party doctrine. It was developed in the 1970s and holds that people have no expectation of privacy when information has been voluntarily shared with a third party, like a cellphone service provider. As it reaches the high court, the Carpenter case raises two basic questions, one easy and one hard. First, the easy one: What should the Supreme Court do when a decades-old doctrine from the age of rotary-dial phones and Yellow Pages stops making sense in the face of rapid, unforeseen technological advances? — The New York Times

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