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SCOTUS expansion of digital privacy rights continues

Is the nation’s highest judicial tribunal being clear enough in the signals it is sending regarding individuals’ privacy rights in the so-called digital age?

Indication are that it clearly is, and both privacy advocates and 4th Amendment purists are applauding the string of successive U.S. Supreme Court outcomes that are chipping away at unbridled enforcement power.

To wit: The court ruled relatively recently that police and other investigatory agencies cannot use GPS systems to track vehicle location without first securing a warrant to do so. The court also ruled unanimously that warrants are required by officials seeking to search cellphones.

And now, in a tight 5-4 decision announced just last week, new law applies going forward concerning phone-tracking surveillance. The SCOTUS ruling issued last Friday mandates that investigators seeking location-linked data from mobile service providers must show more than reasonable grounds to secure it. Instead, they will now need a warrant to access such information.

That spells a big change, with a lower standard having previously applied for many decades. Until last week’s ruling, courts had routinely upheld government requests to access alleged suspects’ records without a warrant and in cases where they had allegedly volunteered/relinquished personal information to third parties (e.g., banks, libraries, phone companies and so forth).

The instant decision clearly reflects the court’s focus on previously unforeseen technology that is now fundamentally changing the way we live.

“Few could have imagined a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes,” Chief Justice John Roberts stated in his written opinion. Roberts stressed that, “This newfound tracking capacity runs against everyone.”

Case advocates hope that the ruling, while being expressly limited to cellphones and cell-site tracking, will have broader implications in the future. They stress that it could provide bedrock protection in cases involving government requests to access other digital information as well. That includes things such as emails, home-based “smart” appliances and additional data sources that have not even been developed yet.

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