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Clear but limited victory for privacy advocates in SCOTUS case

A cellphone is different.

That's what it came down to for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and the court's so-called "liberal wing" in a narrow 5-4 court ruling last week in a case focused on privacy rights.

All the court's cases are highly anticipated and much-watched affairs, of course. This one involving the government's securing of cellphone-linked evidence without a warrant was particularly notable, though, given its potential implications for government power and citizens' privacy expectations.

The latter appears to have won.

The key facts of the case can be quickly summarized. In a criminal matter several years ago, government authorities invoked a federal law allowing them to secure cellphone location data on a suspect from a mobile service provider based on reasonable grounds of wrongdoing. Their warrantless search and seizure of evidence resulted in that individual being convicted on robbery charges.

The issue before the high court on final appeal was whether such a search must be preceded by a showing of probable cause (a higher standard) and the securing of a warrant.

A thin majority of the Supreme Court ruled in the affirmative, though couching its ruling in narrow terms and limiting it to cellphone location data.

The majority was clearly uneasy with what Justice Roberts termed a "newfound tracking capacity" that, if left unchecked, could materially erode citizens' privacy rights. A cellphone provides "a detailed and comprehensive record of [a] person's movements," Roberts noted, in which that individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. If authorities want to pierce that protection, they must first show cause and obtain a warrant.

The case ruling found broad support from across a wide spectrum of privacy advocates and groups concerned with government surveillance capabilities. One commentator noted that it "provides a path forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future cases."

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