In the past few years, there has been an explosion of portable consumer technology and with each new device or app update, we willfully or unknowingly, sign away privacy rights just to reach that new level of connection. Phones connect to cell towers which track our every move. Apple and Google use that data to provide useful navigation and traffic information. App developers use this information for targeted ads based on where you are, or allowing users even more geotargeted access to their friends’ whereabouts. With this amount of access into our lives, then why is it that we allow Silicon Valley to know intimate details about what we are doing, but once the Government or Law Enforcement needs that data, there is the idea that “Big Brother” will use it to chip away at the constitution. In October, the Supreme Court will look at this to decide whether it is legal for Law Enforcement to collect cell phone metadata from mobile providers without a warrant.
The case that the Supreme Court will rule on is Carpenter v. United States. In the case, Carpenter was found guilty of a string of robberies after the cellphone location data was given to the police with a court order. This data was obtained after an accomplice testified and provided Carpenter’s cell phone number to the FBI. Because the FBI now had Carpenter’s phone number, they were able to go to his phone carrier for his cell phone data using the Third Party doctrine.
Carpenter’s attorneys, which include the ACLU, argue that the Third Party doctrine needs to be reexamined and does not apply because it was established before the rise to electronics. This doctrine states that the 4th amendment does not apply to any information that is voluntarily given up to a third party, meaning that authorities do not need a warrant to collect evidence. This allowed the FBI to obtain months’ worth cell phone data placing Carpenter near the robberies.
With this evidence, Carpenter was found guilty but his attorneys were able to appeal up the court system to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. There, the justices ruled with the lower court claiming that Third Party doctrine still applies to cell phone metadata giving Law Enforcement the ability to collect information on a suspect without the need for a warrant, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to hear the case. This, however, makes some believe that it is only to help ease the burden of proof that the Government needs to execute surveillance programs against U.S. citizens. These groups also see this ability by the government as a breach of individual privacy rights due to the ease at which a person’s identity can be determined with the use of aggregated data. But, if the Supreme Court upholds the Lower Court’s decision it will be a huge win for law enforcement’s ability to gather evidence against alleged suspects.
With this case reaching all the way to the Supreme Court, it sets up a battle between individual privacy and limited government advocates against those who look to increase law enforcement’s and the Government’s abilities. This will culminate in a decision that will help shape the direction that the United States moves in, as every day the private sector innovates new ways to connect the people and law enforcement seeks new ways ability to gather information.
Josh Weitz is a summer intern for the SIGNAL Digital team. He is currently pursuing an Integrated Marketing Communications Masters Degree from the University of Mississippi.