Federal law is thin regarding Fourth Amendment privacy protections for the digital age, and relies primarily on policies established decades before the invention of modern computing and cellular technology. Last month, the Supreme Court released one of the first decisions extending personal privacy rights to the digital realm.
Carpenter v. U.S. establishes that government entities must obtain a warrant to access a person’s cellular location information from phone providers, which store geo-tagged, timestamped data for years. The Court held that police tracking of an individual’s exact whereabouts through cellphone data without probable cause is intrusive and unconstitutional.
The case began in 2011, when police arrested four men in connection with a series of armed robberies at RadioShack and T-Mobile storefronts throughout the city of Detroit. One suspect confessed, turning over information about 15 accomplices who helped the group rob nine stores in Michigan and Ohio.
Prosecutors used the confession to apply for court orders, hoping to obtain cellphone records to track the suspected accomplices’ movements and verify their involvement in the crimes.
One of those accomplices was Timothy Carpenter, pegged by the others as the ringleader of the operation. Federal Magistrate Judges issued two court orders for Carpenter’s cell providers, MetroPCS and Sprint, to disclose incoming and outgoing cell records during the months when the robberies took place. The providers produced records spanning 129 days, including two during which Carpenter’s phone was “roaming” in northeastern Ohio. This enabled prosecutors to match his location with four of the storefronts in question at the exact times the robberies occurred. Carpenter was sentenced to 116 years in prison on multiple convictions of armed robbery.
Before trial, his legal team argued that the police’s cell data searches violated his Fourth Amendment rights, holding that the department’s seizure of the records without obtaining a warrant supported by probable cause breached his right to personal privacy.
Prosecutors countered by citing the Stored Communications Act of 1986, which allows authorities to access electronic data if they have reasonable grounds to believe the data is relevant to a criminal investigation.
Lower courts denied Carpenter’s motion, but the Supreme Court, increasingly interested in digital privacy laws, agreed last year to hear the case.
The 5-4 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, overturns precedents set by federal cases from the 1970s—precedents many feel have become antiquated given the rapid development and nationwide integration of mobile technologies.
First is United States v. Miller, a 1976 case ruling that authorities were not required to obtain a warrant to access private bank records. The logic here was that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit police from seizing information that had been given to a third party such as a bank. Smith v. Maryland in 1979 extended the definition of a “third party” to include phone companies and their records.
But phone companies in 2018 collect vastly more personal data than phone companies did in 1979. Nearly every American carries a smart device in their pocket capable of tracking movements down to the footstep, recording health vitals such as heart rate and blood pressure, and documenting texts, emails, internet activity, and more—constant passive surveillance.
The Carpenter decision indicates the Supreme Court recognizes the importance of the Fourth Amendment in the digital age, and that the use of cellphones and other technology necessary for modern life does not invalidate a person’s personal privacy rights. While the decision is narrow in scope, only applying to cell-site location data, it may set the stage for future privacy cases involving smart homes, public-facing cameras, self-driving vehicles, and other connected technology.
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