Supreme Court weighs major digital privacy case

WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday takes up a major test of privacy rights in the digital age as it weighs whether police must obtain warrants to get data on the past locations of criminal suspects using cellphone data from wireless providers.

The justices at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) are due to hear an appeal by a man named Timothy Carpenter convicted in a series of armed robberies in Ohio and Michigan with the help of past cellphone location data that linked him to the crime locations. His American Civil Liberties Union lawyers argue that without a court-issued warrant such data amounts to an unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment.

Law enforcement authorities routinely request and receive this information from wireless providers during criminal investigations as they try to link a suspect to a crime.

Police helped establish that Carpenter was near the scene of the robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores by securing from his cellphone carrier his past "cell site location information" tracking which cellphone towers had relayed his calls.

RELATED: A look at the Supreme Court justices

10 PHOTOS
Supreme Court Justices
See Gallery
Supreme Court Justices

John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participates in taking a new family photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The legal fight has raised questions about the degree to which companies protect their customers' privacy rights. The big four wireless carriers, Verizon Communications Inc, AT&T Inc, T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp, receive tens of thousands of these requests annually from law enforcement.

Verizon was the only one of those four companies to tell the Supreme Court that it favors strong privacy protections for its customers, with the other three sitting on the sidelines.

There is growing scrutiny of the surveillance practices of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies amid concern among lawmakers across the political spectrum about civil liberties and authorities evading warrant requirements.

The Supreme Court twice in recent years has ruled on major cases concerning how criminal law applies to new technology, both times ruling against law enforcement. In 2012, the court held that a warrant is required to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. Two years later, the court said police need a warrant to search a cellphone seized during an arrest.

Carpenter's bid to suppress the evidence failed and he was convicted of six robbery counts. On appeal, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his convictions, finding that no warrant was required for the cellphone data.

The ACLU said in court papers that police need "probable cause," and therefore a warrant, in order to meet Fourth Amendment requirements.

Based on a provision of a 1986 federal law called the Stored Communications Act, the Justice Department said probable cause is not needed to obtain customer records. Instead, it argues, prosecutors must show only that there are "reasonable grounds" for the records to be provided and that they are "relevant and material" to an investigation.

President Donald Trump's administration said in court papers the government has a "compelling interest" in acquiring the data without a warrant because the information is particularly useful at the early stages of a criminal investigation.

Civil liberties groups said the 1986 law did not anticipate the way mobile devices now contain a wealth of data on each user.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.