News Guild, others: Freedom risked by U.S. stand for unlimited cell phone snooping

WASHINGTON—Freedom of the press to report the news, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, is at risk from a federal government stand to let law enforcement engage in unlimited snooping against citizens via their cell phones.

That’s because the prospect of being tracked via the cell phone data phone firms store – and the police could plow through – would chill sources journalists need to report the news.

The News Guild-CWA and 19 other news organizations took that stand in a friend-of-the-court brief for a cell phone privacy case the U.S. Supreme Court heard on Nov. 29. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press led their effort. No other unions filed briefs.

The case, Carpenter v US, involves a Detroit man, one of a gang of robbers of nine retail stores that sold cell phones and smart phones, being tracked and arrested by the Detroit police and the FBI, using data from his cell phone stored by his cell phone providers. The data included the times, places, start and end of his phone calls, as well as the numbers he called.

The American Civil Liberties Union argued the case for him. It told the justices snooping and spying on all of Timothy Carpenter’s phone calls – without his permission and without a warrant – by obtaining the records violated the Bill of Rights’ mandate that people should be free from illegal intrusions into their “persons, houses, papers and effects,” to quote the 4th Amendment to the Constitution (see main story about Supreme Court case).

By letting the police agencies snoop and spy upon reporters, the News Guild and the other press groups said, freedom of the press, part of the 1st Amendment, would be curtailed because sources would be too scared to talk. Their locations could be traced.

“A journalist on assignment today is the proverbial one-man band with a cell phone for an instrument,” the Reporters Committee, the News Guild and their allies explained. “Today, reporters use cell phones to set up and record interviews, write notes and articles, take pictures on video, share their work on social media, follow breaking news, research story tips and engage in other functions essential to newsgathering.

“The cell phone has become a mobile newsroom. The government’s ability, therefore, to reconstruct journalists’ movements and location over an extended period of time using historical cell phone records, threatens reporters’ ability to maintain the confidentiality of their sources and gather the news.”  And that chills freedom of the press, their brief said.

The GOP Trump administration, defending the indiscriminate gathering of the cell phone-generated data without a warrant and without notice to the cell phone user, did not reply to the journalists’ brief. The journalists did not participate in the High Court’s Nov. 29 session.

Instead, the government argued that when a person makes a cell phone call, he or she gives up the right to privacy by sharing personal information – gathered via the phone – with “a third party,” the cell phone company. The justices will decide the case next year.