New Jersey law enforcement will no longer be able to simply request cellphone tracking information in an investigation. In 30 days, the state will require that authorities first obtain a search warrant before a mobile provider hands over tracking data.
The ruling came down from New Jersey’s Supreme Court in connection with a 2006 burglary arrest. Police were able to arrest Thomas Earls, who was found in a motel room with a number of stolen possessions, using cellphone tracking data from T-Mobile. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in his opinion that people expect privacy when entering into contacts with mobile cellphone providers. Furthermore, Rabner said that people don’t expect their information to be shared with others, even when they have an understanding that they are sharing information with that service provider. The relationship remains between the service provider and the customer, not any third parties.
“No one buys a cellphone to share detailed information about their whereabouts with the police,” Rabner wrote. “That was true in 2006 and is equally true today. Citizens have a legitimate privacy interest in such information.”
The search warrants must be probable-cause based and will only affect Earls’ case and all future cases.
The decision comes at a pivotal time for Americans and privacy given the recently leaked information about a U.S. government surveillance program called PRISM. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden collected a number of top-secret NSA documents regarding the type of information it collects on American citizens and foreign entities and has been releasing them over the last month. A number of privacy advocacy groups have gathered together to call attention to these issues and petition the government for change.
The New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union called today’s news a “win for your privacy” on its Facebook page.