News Guild: Press freedom risked by unlimited cell phone snooping
Credit: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Freedom of the press to report the news, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, is at risk from a federal government stance letting 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 that phone firms store—and which police could obtain—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 the effort.

The case, Carpenter v US, involves a Detroit man, Timothy Carpenter, who was accused, with accomplices, of robbing nine T-Mobile and Radio Shack retail stores in the Detroit area and northwestern Ohio of cell phones and smart phones in 2010-11. Found guilty and sentenced to a decade or more, he challenged the whole sequence in the case before the court.

Police not only tracked his movements, but also those of the people he called, using data from his phone stored by mobile service providers. The data included the times, places, start and end times of his calls, as well as the numbers he dialed.

The tracking, if done without a warrant and notification, is illegal, according to Carpenter’s lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU told the justices snooping and spying on all of Timothy Carpenter’s phone calls without his permission and without a warrant, violated the Bill of Rights’ mandate that people should be free from illegal intrusions into their “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” to quote the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.


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 First 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 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.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.