Tracking mobile location breaches privacy? How US judges addressed an issue that matters worldwide

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Published: July 2, 2018 2:26:18 PM

In a historic judgement, the nine-judge bench of the US Supreme Court on June 22, 2018 ruled in a 5-4 majority verdict that law enforcement agencies will be violating the Fourth Amendment of the United States, if they access records of the physical location, of any convicted criminal, based on GPS and cellphone towers without a search warrant.

In a historic judgement, the nine-judge bench of the US Supreme Court said accessing records of the physical location, of any convicted criminal, based on GPS and cellphone towers without a search warrant is unlawful. (IE)

In a historic judgement, the nine-judge bench of the US Supreme Court on June 22, 2018 ruled in a 5-4 majority verdict that law enforcement agencies will be violating the Fourth Amendment of the United States, if they access records of the physical location, of any convicted criminal, based on GPS and cellphone towers without a search warrant. The Fourth Amendment of the United States prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of any US citizen. Thus the US court under Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr addressed a question that has for long belonged to a grey area in the digital age.

In the Carpenter v United States case, Chief Justice Roberts noted that the world is going through vast technological change, and since detailed digital data of a person is available now, the Constitution needs to take account of this, The New York Times reported. The judgement helped in throwing some light on how the matter is dealt with throughout the world. Previously, any US law enforcement agency would have been able to collect data about anyone without any warrant. Now they need a warrant proving records are necessary to investigate or collect evidence for a crime.

The Carpenter v United States case involved armed robberies since 2010 in which Timothy Ivory Carpenter was accused of planning the robberies. Attorneys relied on cellphone records of the convict to prove that the suspect was near the crime scenes when many of the robberies happened. Carpenter was sentenced to 116 years in prison.

In India

Law enforcement agencies in India, be it Central or State, has the option to gain access to GPS or cellphone location data and even call records from the service providers. But these data can only be accessed when an officer of SP rank or a DCP, in case of a commissionerate, writes to the nodal officer of the service provider seeking the data. In a number of cases like Delhi murder case in December 2017, police cracked it by tracking the suspect’s location, even though they switched off the phone while he was at the scene of crime. Again in cases like the disappearance of Ajitabh in Bengaluru on December last year, could not be tracked due to the lack of data.

When IE asked a Delhi Police officer, he said, “To access the data we need permission from the DCP heading a district or from an ACP if the DCP has vested those powers in him,” and in case of misuse of such records, “There is self-regulation; there have been instances where policemen illegally obtaining records have been sent to jail,” the officer said.

The new US judgement

All previous judgements of the US courts, in case like this, went by the “third-party doctrine” – which is a legal theory stating that people who voluntarily give information to third parties, like service providers and if the location records are accessed from such a third-party, then one have “no reasonable expectation of privacy”.

The new decision taken by the government about cellphone records will be applicable for email, text messages, internet searches, and even bank and credit card records. “We hold only that a warrant is required in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party,” the Chief Justice wrote. After ruling out the judgement John added that, “GPS information, the time-stamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious and sexual associations,” will be entitled to privacy protection.

Expectations have been made for emergencies like bomb threats and child abductions.

However, the dissenting judges said that the ruling “will frustrate principled application of the Fourth Amendment in many routine yet vital law enforcement operations,” reported NYT.

 

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