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Trib editorial: High court must reaffirm warrants

| Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, 8:33 p.m.

In what's become a hot-button case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices will determine whether authorities can track the whereabouts of Americans based on cellphone data without the need for warrants.

In a hearing last week before the high court, government lawyers argued that the cellphone records in question belong to telecoms, not their customers, so the Fourth Amendment's privacy protection does not apply. The issue stems from the case of Timothy Ivory Carpenter, convicted of a series of robberies after police tracked his location, without a warrant, based on 127 days' worth of data from his wireless carrier.

The government argued that this is “routing information” and not the specific content of citizens' cellphones or conversations.

But the Supreme Court previously ruled that GPS tracking counts as a search under the Fourth Amendment and requires a warrant. And consider as well the chilling effect that warrantless snooping, enabled by phone companies' records, would have on news reporters and their sources.

As Matthew Feeney of the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out, the expectation of privacy extends to cellphone location information, “which the majority of Americans considers to be sensitive information.”

The case before the Supreme Court provides an opportunity to reinforce citizens' right to privacy in an era of evolving communication. In this regard, the march of technology must not trample the need to obtain warrants.

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