Courts across the country have been debating privacy laws regarding cell phone data for some time now. Among the topic, one main question keeps reappearing: when law enforcement requests cell phone records from a wireless company, does this constitute a search under the 4th amendment? Or, to put it more bluntly, should law enforcement be required to obtain a warrant to access cell phone location data?
In a ruling this Tuesday, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that police do not need a warrant to obtain cellphone location data from various wireless carriers.
The ruling is based on the notion that cellphone users are aware they’re sharing data voluntarily with their provider whenever they use their phone. Supported by an older policy known as the third-party doctrine, the government has the ability to obtain the information without needing a warrant because this information is willfully shared with a 3rd party, regardless of how revealing this information may be.
When you dial a phone number, use any type of apps that require GPS, or allow your device to track your location, you’re willingly divulging your location. Even when you’re not explicitly granting your mobile device access to your location, the act of making a phone call or using cellular data essentially gives away your location with needing your explicit consent in that moment. Using the third-party doctrine to determine how this data should be dealt with essentially groups cell phone location data into the same category as bank records, hotel bills, airline miles statements, or social media profile information, and this is what privacy advocates are concerned about.
Law enforcement has the ability to reveal an overwhelming amount of personal information about an individual based on location data such as where they live and work, where and when you travel, and even who you sleep with. Advocates for privacy argue that this location data and the subsequent correlations determined from this data is not always willingly submitted and should be exempt from the most recent ruling or treated separately. The third-party doctrine
This ruling also overturns a previous decision from a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit back in August 2015 claiming that gathering cell records in bulk does in fact constitute a search, triggering a warrant requirement.
This most recent decision has not only dealt a blow to privacy advocates, but also makes the Supreme Court less likely to reconsider the third-party doctrine. Still, with each ruling comes a growing level of dissent. This in itself may signal that it’s time for the Supreme Court to revisit the somewhat outdated third-party doctrine in an attempt to revise the doctrine so it more accurately applies to a society connected by cell phone towers.