New Supreme Court Decision Requires the Government to Have a Warrant Before Gaining Access to Cell Site Location Data
In mid-June, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement is now generally required to obtain a search warrant in order to access an individual’s cell phone location information. Over the past several years, cell phone location information, or cell site data, has become a favorite tool at the disposal of law enforcement to show that an individual was in or around a particular location at a specific time. Until now, law enforcement has typically used standard subpoena power to obtain this cell site data from wireless companies, under the theory that subscribers have voluntarily chosen to share that data with a third party (the wireless company), and therefore do not have a privacy interest in it. However, in this landmark decision, the Supreme Court found that an individual has a privacy interest in his whereabouts where they can be documented on an hour-by-hour, or even minute-by-minute basis – as can be done with cell site data compiled by wireless companies. That privacy interest is what implicates the Fourth Amendment and requires the government to get a search warrant in order to gain access to that information. Although this decision highlighted its narrow applicability to law enforcement’s use of cell site data, we are interested to see which additional tools that are regularly utilized by law enforcement may also be found to invoke a privacy interest in the coming years, as technology continues to advance. Specifically, the government’s ability to obtain email, text messages, and internet searches from third parties may also be implicated by this ruling.
Rachel Wilson, Nathans & Biddle LLP