“Historically, privacy was almost implicit, because it was hard to find and gather information. But in the digital world, whether it’s digital cameras or satellites or just what you click on, we need to have more explicit rules – not just for governments but for private companies.” -Bill Gates
Supreme Court oral arguments were heard earlier this week in Carpenter v. United States, a closely watched case which stands to impact what privacy means in our digital age. The case will decide whether law enforcement is permitted to gather cellphone data from third-party service providers like Verizon and AT&T without a warrant. Carpenter presents the latest installment in the eternal struggle between the need for safety and the desire to prevent a surveillance state.
In Carpenter, the FBI investigated a series of robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Detroit. Suspecting that Carpenter was operating as a “getaway driver,” the FBI sought and obtained without a warrant the location data for his cell phone. This data revealed that Carpenter (or at least his cell phone) was near the stores at the times of the robberies––damning evidence.
Carpenter argued that the government’s collection of his cell photo data was a “search” under the 4th Amendment, a “search” which would require a warrant supported by “probable cause.” The government maintained that privacy concerns were addressed when law enforcement complied with the Stored Communications Act which allows law enforcement access upon a showing that the information sought is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation. The government further argued that there is no reason to afford greater protection to cell phone data than given to other data such as bank records and dialed telephone numbers which can be obtained without a warrant.
The issues presented in Carpenter are not new, but are magnified by the awesome power of advancing technology to track our movement and assembly with others. The Louisiana court in State v. Bone, 12-34 (La. App. 5 Cir. 9/11/12), 107 So. 3d 49, held that an exclusive user of a cell phone did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy to the call detail record log associated with the phone. The court reasoned that access to the information in the detail record log was voluntarily surrendered by the defendant to the phone’s providers. However, in United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012), the United States Supreme Court found that the installation of a GPS device on a vehicle to monitor the vehicle’s movement was a “search” under the 4th Amendment. Carpenter addresses the intersection of these two cases.
By carrying a cell phone you know can track your movements, do you lose any reasonable expectation of privacy? Or, would allowing warrantless access to this information be akin to the prohibited GPS search in United States v. Jones? The Supreme Court will soon decide. How it chooses will impact criminal litigation and by extension how cell phone data is regarded in civil suits. More importantly, it may also impact the relationship between citizens and their government.
Collin LeBlanc is a Keogh Cox partner and experienced litigator who concentrates in injury, commercial, and legal malpractice disputes. He lives in nearby Zachary, Louisiana with his wife Melissa and three all-too-active children. He is an outdoorsman, a tennis player, a cook, and a hobbyist writer.