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Supreme Court hands victory to privacy advocates in Carpenter decision

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KETK) - A major decision from the Supreme Court today handed privacy advocates a big victory.

In a nation of nearly 400 million cellphones, it impacts almost everyone.

In its 5-4 decision in Carpenter vs. the United States, the court ruled that police generally must obtain a search warrant before using phone records to track an individual.

As we move, our phones re-connect to the closest cell tower. Each connection leaves a record - a digital trail. In cities full of cell towers, sometimes the police can tell where we've been, down to the specific block.

Police seek that data tens of thousands of times a year. 

But in its decision, the Supreme Court said it's such a detailed record of our movements that it nearly turns a phone into an ankle monitor. We expect it to be private, and the police will usually need a court order to get it.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, said "a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of the person's movements."

Friday's ruling said police can still get cellphone records without a warrant in such emergencies as "the need to pursue a fleeing suspect, protect individuals who are threatened with imminent harm, or prevent the imminent destruction of evidence."

But civil liberties groups hope today's ruling will lead to privacy guarantees for all kinds of personal data, generated by everything from  Amazon's Alexa to smart home appliances. 

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