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The United States Supreme Court issued a fundamental decision on privacy, ruling in favor of protecting the location data generated by cellphones.

In Carpenter versus United States, decided June 25, Timothy Carpenter had been convicted of several armed robberies of cellphone stores in Detroit. In sentencing him (to 116 years in prison), the historical location data generated by his cellphone—which the prosecutor requested from the wireless carriers—was key evidence. Specifically, 12,898 location points were obtained. Based on this data, the prosecution proved to the court that Mr. Carpenter had been in the immediate vicinity of the plundered shops.

In a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court revoked the appealed ruling, which held that law enforcement did not require a warrant to obtain the location data of suspects. Writing for the majority, the chief justice John Roberts declined to grant unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information. The ruling makes exceptions for extreme cases: if the suspect is being pursued or if the lives of others are in danger.

Many consider this decision a great victory because, although cellphones—and technology in general—are a mainstay of modern life, access to location data must be proportionate and justified with a warrant.

Author: Cristina Clos


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