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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday imposed limits on the ability of police to obtain cellphone data pinpointing the past location of criminal suspects in a major victory for digital privacy advocates and a setback for law enforcement authorities.
In the 5-4 ruling, the court said police generally need a court-approved warrant to get the data, setting a higher legal hurdle than previously existed under federal law. The court said obtaining such data without a warrant from wireless carriers, as police routinely do, amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
In the ruling written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the court decided in favor of Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in several armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and Michigan with the help of past cellphone location data that linked him to the crime scenes.
Roberts stressed that the ruling did not resolve other hot-button digital privacy fights, including whether police need warrants to access real-time cellphone location information to track criminal suspects. The ruling has no bearing on “traditional surveillance techniques” such as security cameras or on data collection for national security purposes, he added.
Roberts was joined by the court’s four liberal justices in the majority. The court’s other four conservatives dissented.
Although the ruling explicitly concerned only historical cellphone data, digital privacy advocates are hopeful it will set the tone for future cases on other emerging legal issues prompted by new technology.
“Today’s decision rightly recognizes the need to protect the highly sensitive location data from our cellphones, but it also provides a path forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future cases – from our emails, smart home appliances and technology that is yet to be invented,” said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Nate Wessler, who represents Carpenter.
“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the ruling still allows police to avoid obtaining warrants for other types of business records. Police could also avoid obtaining warrants in emergency situations, Roberts added.
The high court endorsed the arguments made by Carpenter’s lawyers, who said that police needed “probable cause,” and therefore a warrant, to avoid a Fourth Amendment violation.
Police helped establish that Carpenter was near the scene of the robberies by securing from his cellphone carrier his past “cell site location information” that tracks which cellphone towers relay calls. His bid to suppress the evidence failed and he was convicted of six robbery counts.
The big four wireless carriers – Verizon Communications Inc, AT&T Inc, T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp – receive tens of thousands of such requests annually from law enforcement.
Carpenter’s case will now return to lower courts. His conviction may not be overturned because other evidence also linked him to the crimes.
The case underscored the rising concerns among privacy advocates about the government’s ability to obtain an ever-growing amount of personal data. During arguments in the case in December, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who joined Roberts in the ruling, alluded to fears of “Big Brother,” the all-seeing leader in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, a former prosecutor, said in a dissenting opinion that the ruling could do “far more harm than good.”
The decision “guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely,” Alito added. Alito also said the ruling does not address “some of the greatest threats to individual privacy” that may come from data collection by private companies.
It was the third ruling in recent years in which the court has resolved major cases on how criminal law applies to new technology, each time ruling against law enforcement. In 2014, it required police in most instances to obtain a warrant to search a cellphone’s contents when its user is arrested. In 2012, it decided a warrant is needed to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle.
The U.S. Justice Department argued that probable cause should not be required to obtain customer records under a 1986 federal law. Instead, it argued for a lower standard: that prosecutors show only that “reasonable grounds” exist for the records and they are “relevant and material” to an investigation.
Roberts said the government’s argument “fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
There has been rising concern over the surveillance practices of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and whether companies like wireless carriers care about customer privacy rights.
Various tech firms, including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, joined a brief in the Carpenter case urging the court to adopt strong privacy protections.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham
Atlanta police say a driver for UberEATS, the ride-hailing company’s food delivery service, shot and killed a customer in the city’s posh Buckhead neighborhood late Saturday night.
The victim was identified by a local NBC affiliate as 30-year-old Ryan Thornton, a recent Morehouse College graduate. According to NBC’s report, Thornton and the UberEATS driver exchanged words after the delivery was made. The driver then allegedly shot Thornton several times and fled in a white Volkswagen vehicle.
Thornton was taken to a local hospital, where he later died from his wounds. The alleged shooter was still on the run from police early this morning.
An Uber spokesperson said the company was “shocked and saddened” by the event, and are cooperating with Atlanta police in the investigation.
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One Buckhead resident told the television station that he would be more cautious about using Uber services after the shooting. Uber drivers have been implicated in violence in the past, and the company’s approach to screening its drivers has been criticized for some of its legal and public relations problems.
The most damaging case was likely that of an Indian passenger who was raped by an Uber driver in 2014. In court documents, the passenger alleged that Uber executives wrongfully obtained her medical records with apparent plans to discredit her. The driver was sentenced to life in prison, and Uber settled the civil suit brought by the victim late last year.
Last November, two women filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in the U.S., alleging that its failure to screen drivers has led to thousands of incidents of sexual harassment and even rape of female passengers. In one example, an Uber driver was arrested for the rape of a passenger last December, also in Atlanta. Just days later, an Uber driver in Lebanon confessed to murdering a British Embassy staffer there.
Under former CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber fought hard against certain driver-screening rules. In one case, Uber shut down its operations in Austin, Texas in 2016 after spending millions of dollars to defeat a background-check rule there, and failing. It returned to the city after state legislators overturned the local ordinance. Safety concerns were also among the reasons London has barred Uber from operating there.
Twenty-eight-year-old Andrew Finch was shot and killed by police in Wichita late Thursday, after a fraudulent emergency call drew police to his family’s residence with their weapons drawn. The hoax call — an instance of what’s known as “swatting” — was placed after an argument in the online game Call of Duty.
Wichita police received a 911 call on Thursday purporting to be from an armed man holding his own family hostage. When they arrived at the address, there was no hostage situation, but Finch was shot and killed after opening the door to the house and, according to police, reaching for his waistband several times. According to Finch’s family, he didn’t play video games. He was unarmed.
The swatting call was reportedly made after an online match in the wargame Call of Duty, with a bet of $ 1.50 on the line.
The alleged perpetrator, who responded to news about the swatting live on twitter, has been arrested in Los Angeles. Tyler Raj Barriss, 25, known online as “SWAuTistic,” has been previously arrested for making hoax calls to police, including two bomb threats in 2015. More recently, he may have been responsible for a bomb threat that disrupted the FCC’s vote to repeal net neutrality rules.
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Security researcher Brian Krebs, himself a former swatting victim, tracked down what appear to be tweets by the perpetrator of the attack. After the fatality was reported, the swatter tweeted: “I DIDNT GET ANYONE KILLED BECAUSE I DIDNT DISCHARGE A WEAPON AND BEING A SWAT MEMBER ISNT MY PROFESSION.”
Krebs also managed to briefly interview the apparent perpetrator via Twitter before Barriss’ arrest. He told Krebs that he had been paid for previous swattings. While he said he felt remorse for the death, he was “too scared” to turn himself in to police.
According to an interview with a man claiming to be the perpetrator on the YouTube channel DramaAlert before the arrest, Barriss was not involved in the inciting online match. Instead, one of the involved players contacted him and asked him to make the fake call.
The phenomenon of swatting has been on the rise in recent years, particularly among online gamers and hackers. According to Krebs, many perpetrators are minors and receive token punishments for their false reports. In some jurisdictions, filing a false police report is a misdemeanor, making it less likely that a swatter could be charged with murder for a resulting death.
Police had not disclosed the charges against Barriss as of this morning.
A Connecticut woman’s Fitbit may have helped bring her murderer to justice. Connie Dabate was shot dead in her home December 2015. Her husband, Richard Dabate claimed he left for work around 8:30, only to return a half-hour later to see “a masked man — about 6-foot-2 and stocky with a Vin Diesel voice.” The man allegedly tortured Richard, shot Connie with her husband’s gun when she arrived home from a gym class, and then ran when Richard escaped and called the police. So far, so Law & Order. When the police started inspecting the couple’s digital footprints, however, they found Richard’s story more full…
This story continues at The Next Web