Supreme Court Privacy Case Important for Journalists

Media organizations are backing the American Civil Liberties Union, which is arguing in the Supreme Court on Wednesday that law enforcement agencies need a warrant to demand location data from cellphones.

The location data your phone gathers all day makes it possible for an interested party — the police, let’s say — to look back at a period of time and reconstruct precisely where you were, and from that to deduce who you were talking to and why. Such data may offer invaluable help in prosecuting a criminal. If it’s available on demand, without a warrant, it could be a nightmare for journalists who are trying to protect their sources,  writes Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “It can really imperil the ability of journalists to do confidential reporting,” said Nathan Freed Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union, who will be in the Supreme Court on Wednesday to argue against the government in an important privacy case, Carpenter v. United States.

FBI agents in Detroit got over four months’ worth of location records from cellphone-service companies for suspects in a robbery investigation. The ACLU is representing suspect Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted. No one is arguing that robbers shouldn’t be punished. Rather, the argument is that, in an age when smartphones are ubiquitous, new privacy protections are necessary. A long list of news organizations and journalism advocacy groups have signed briefs supporting the ACLU position that law enforcement officials need a warrant before they are able to demand location data from cellphones. Reporters need confidentiality to do their work, and they need to be able to promise it to sources. A journalist’s cellphone location data can reveal “the stories a journalist is working on before they are published, where a journalist went to gather information for those stories, and the identity of a journalist’s source,” said the brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.