In a five-to-four vote cast earlier today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that most warrantless smartphone location data requests are illegal, throwing out a previous verdict from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and providing digital privacy advocates with a major win. SCOTUS hence put an official end to Carpenter v. the U.S., a highly polarizing case that stems back from 2011 when one Timothy Carpenter was charged with a series of armed robberies performed in Ohio and Michigan in late 2010 and early 2011 based on handset location data the FBI obtained without a warrant.
SCOTUS heard the arguments from both sides in late November, having ruled that the manner in which the federal government obtained Mr. Carpenter's data from his mobile service provider MetroPCS was unconstitutional. The FBI mined close to 13,000 locations frequented by the defendant over a 127-day period and by doing so without a warrant that requires a higher degree of evidence backing certain suspicions, it broke Mr. Carpenter's Fourth Amendment rights protecting him against unreasonable and hence unlawful searches, according to the ruling. The court that previously heard the case opinioned that cellphone location data isn't protected by the Fourth Amendment. The defense argued unrestricted access to people's smartphone location data in the digital age presents a significant privacy risk allows the federal government to intrude into anyone's personal life with little to no justification.
The development comes under a year after SCOTUS first agreed to hear the landmark case, with Verizon being the only non-reserved wireless carrier in the country that openly called for the precedent to be set in Mr. Carpenter's favor, thus helping mobile service providers resist unreasonable user data requests from the federal government. The ruling effectively guarantees that no American citizen is waiving their Fourth Amendment rights by simply using cellular technologies which the government could abuse to intrude on them without a justified cause.