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Angelo Merendino/Corbis via Getty Images

Police officers cannot retrace the location of your cell phone without a warrant, the Supreme Court ruled today — a narrow but critically important victory for privacy advocates as well as giant tech companies.

Why it matters: The court’s precedents have allowed a relatively broad range of warrantless searches, but Silicon Valley warned that if those “analog” rules were applied to modern smartphones, hardly anything we do would ever be private again. And they won.

The big picture: When the police go back and retrace a suspect's steps through the location of the suspect's cell phone, that constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, the court said in a 5-4 ruling. And so police will "generally need a warrant" to access that information, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, though there will be exceptions.

Key quote: "Because location information is logged for all of the 400 million devices in the United States — not just those belonging to persons who might happen to come under investigation — this newfound tracking capacity runs against everyone," Roberts wrote. "Police need not even know in advance whether they want to follow a particular individual, or when."

The issue: The Supreme Court ruled in the 1970s that police didn’t need a warrant to track the phone numbers suspects dialed from their landlines. It said people know they’re relying on the phone company to connect calls, and have no right to believe the numbers they’ve called are private once they’ve sent that information to a third party.

  • That precedent has governed a lot of privacy-related cases, especially when it comes to telephones.
  • But by using a smartphone, you’re transmitting just about every detail of your life — including your physical movements — to third parties. That's just too much information for police to access without a warrant, the court said.

The case the court decided today dealt with Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted of participating in a string of robberies in 2010 and 2011 — a conviction based partly on data from Carpenter's cell phone providers, which showed that his phone pinged cell towers near the sites of the robberies at the times they occurred.

  • Police obtained nearly 13,000 individual records about the location of his cell phone, spanning four months.
  • The ACLU says obtaining all those cell-tower records without a warrant violated Carpenter's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Go deeper

Updated 16 mins ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.