Carpenter vs United States: an In-depth look into mobile privacy

A recent ruling by the Supreme Court has required United States law enforcement departments to provide a warrant when requesting cell phone providers to provide records. In an increased war against online privacy, the ruling states that the government needs permission in order to track an individual’s location. While this can be seen as an added difficulty for law enforcement searching for evidence, many are lauding this change as a step in the right direction for online privacy and the use of technology in the future. Cellphones are seen as a highly personal belonging.

In a surprising turn of events, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts was the main proponent of the ruling, leading to the result of its passing at 5-4. In a display of cooperation between the two political parties and learning toward a liberal result, individuals now have added rights relating to their cell phone usage and cell-site location data.

“Virtually any activity on the phone generates the data,” Roberts commented, “including incoming calls, texts, or e-mails and countless other data connections that a phone automatically makes when checking for news, weather, or social media updates.”

The use of cell phone records has recently been a staple in many crime investigations, with the United States law enforcement stating that any data shared is considered voluntarily shared and available as evidence. However, the idea of privacy and how that relates to technology has recently been a hot topic as more and more people agree to offer personal information online and with their cell phone companies. How this relates to law enforcement and its role in the criminal justice system was yet to be defined until this case, and it was unsure about what they outcome would be and how it would affect Americans.

Timothy Carpenter was the plaintiff in the case. He had been convicted in several cases involving robbery and gun offenses in which his cell phone records had been obtained for evidence. At the time of the case in 2010, the government argued that since the records had been attained through a third party, a warrant was not needed.

Roberts continued, “In light of the deeply revealing nature of [cell site location information], its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of the Fourth Amendment protection.”

This is part of recent efforts by the Supreme Court to update privacy rights relating to technology. However, any information related to national security and foreign affairs will not apply to the new ruling, and individuals serve to benefit from the changes in privacy laws. It also addresses a number of other debates for privacy issues and developing technology.

“Even though today’s ruling argues that cell-site location data is unique, it’s easy to see how it will open the door to countless other contexts in which privacy advocates and criminal defendants will argue for similar privacy protections—and similar warrant requirements,” predicts CNN Supreme Court analyst Steve Vladeck.

It is likely that similar rulings will be addressed in terms of individuals’ internet search histories, types of application usage, and GPS records. In the Supreme Court briefs, Roberts argued that cellphones should not be considered on the same level as wallets and purses. Because so much data is stored on these devices, they should be considered on another level legally.

Not everyone was pleased with the ruling, including Justice Anthony Kennedy. He expressed concerns that law enforcement would be blocked from protecting citizens because of this new law. He stated that the decision “draws an unprincipled and unworkable line” between traditional phone and financial records. He argued that this would cause issues in terms of arrests and might

However, most involved seemed pleased with the ruling. The American Civil Liberties Union posted on Twitter that it was a “groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights” and that it would take steps toward protecting other forms of digital info.

Lawyer Jeffery L. Fisher stated that this ruling updates the legal system and is a good first step toward updating outdated laws: “The decision bring the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century…the core of this decision is that digital information is different. It triggers privacy concerns far more profound than physical objects.”

Overall, this new ruling protects the privacy of the 90% of Americans who own a cellphone, and 12 million people arrested for minor crimes where evidence from a phone might be helpful. It also serves as a catalyst toward revisiting privacy laws and how technology is viewed by the government. Multiple publications have claimed this to be the defining case for future issues relating to privacy and technology, and it is likely that other cases will follow the example of this ruling.