As you may recall, earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that police were unable to use covert GPS trackers on suspects’ vehicles without a warrant; a ruling that left a number of substantive questions regarding citizens’ expectation of privacy. This ruling is currently being contested in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
While this latest ruling seems to be along the same lines, the judges found it within legal bounds for authorities to tap the data because it technically belongs to a third party (the cell service providers) and not private citizens.
The case in question, United States of America v. Melvin Skinner, involved a drug runner (Skinner) whose cell phone data was used to triangulate his location — and the location of his motorhome loaded with 1,100 pounds of marijuana in Texas. Tracking information has been increasingly obtained this way since the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.
Skinner appealed his drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit money laundering conviction, arguing that the use of GPS cell tracking violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
The majority ruling, written by Judge John M. Rogers, explained that a suspect should have no expectation that the data in question would be protected property:
“The law cannot be that a criminal is entitled to rely on the expected untrackability of his tools. Otherwise, dogs could not be used to track a fugitive if the fugitive did not know that the dog hounds had his scent.”
There is a similar case currently being heard in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over obtaining historical cell phone data which may stand in opposition to the Skinner case. In the event of a conflict, the case will be brought in front of the Supreme Court to settle any disputes.
As Wired notes, “the Obama administration maintains that Americans have no expectation of privacy in cell-site records because they are ‘in the possession of a third party’ – the mobile phone companies.”
In the coming months we’ll see if the Supreme Court steps in to clarify the ruling, but as it currently stands, the latest decisions are sure to fuel the debate over personal privacy — and to galvanize opposition from civil libertarians.