US Supreme Court to take up privacy case on cell phone data

Washington (AFP) - Do American authorities have the right to track a citizen via cell phone step by step, month after month?

The US Supreme Court announced Monday that it would consider the issue for the first time, pitting fundamental freedoms against the needs of police probes.

The nation's top court will take up a sensitive case on privacy rights that will determine the extent of law enforcement access to cell phone location records.

Geolocation data can aid significantly in police investigations but has come under fire as a serious violation of privacy.

"The data acquired by police provides a stark demonstration of how location data can reveal extraordinarily private details about people's lives, from where they sleep to where they pray," said the American Civil Liberties Union, a co-counsel in the case.

Critics say police should not be granted access to location data without a probable cause warrant.

The Supreme Court will hear the case of Timothy Carpenter, who was arrested in 2011 and convicted of armed robbery in the Detroit area -- in part based on cell phone location evidence.

- Police overreach? -

Investigators had traced Carpenter's movements over the course of 127 days. They amassed no less than 12,898 separate location data points, which ultimately weighed heavily in demonstrating his guilt.

On many Sundays in the early afternoon Carpenter gave or received a call near a church, suggesting he was worshipping at those times, as his cell phone records do not show him in that area other days of the week.

Records also implied that Carpenter slept at home from December 23 to December 27, 2010, but appeared to show that he spent the night of December 22 in another Detroit area, the ACLU said.

In his appeal following conviction, a circuit court ruled that no warrant was required under the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

Carpenter's lawyers, however, took the issue to the nation's top court.

"Given the increasing use of new forms of electronic surveillance, it's important now more than ever that the Supreme Court steps in to push back against police overreach and clarify the protections of the Fourth Amendment," said attorney Harold Gurewitz.

- 'Countless private details' -

Lawyers expect the Supreme Court's decision in the case -- which will be one of the top hearings of the court's second session on a date yet to be fixed -- to have a significant impact on the collection of private information in the United States.

"Because cell phone location records can reveal countless private details of our lives, police should only be able to access them by getting a warrant based on probable cause," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a lawyer at the ACLU.

"The time has come for the Supreme Court to make clear that the longstanding protections of the Fourth Amendment apply with undiminished force to these kinds of sensitive digital records."

In 2012 the top court prohibited the installation of a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without a judicial order.

Two years later the justices had ordered police to obtain a warrant to consult data contained in the smart phone of a person arrested.