In the coming months, the Supreme Court will determine if the police can trace the mobile location of an individual without needing a warrant. Carpenter v. United States is the most significant privacy case in this generation, which is why the highest federal court decided to listen to its argument later this year.

A Potentially Law-Changing Case

The case introduces a precise question if Americans expect anything regarding their privacy regarding their past “cell site location information” (CSLI). Timothy Carpenter, the petitioner, was one of the two defendants that were condemned for his part in a range of armed robberies in Ohio and Michigan. They based some of their judgement on the CSLI data composed of 127 days that positioned him between half and a couple of miles from the robberies throughout the days they were committed.

During the appeal, the Sixth Circuit confirmed his sentence, claiming that he doesn’t have the right to expect confidentiality in his CSLI information. This is the reason why the government wasn’t required to get a warrant and they even admitted it at the trial. Even if the Supreme Court approves or dismisses the judgement, the answer has massive repercussions on people’s right to privacy and generally, the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is the law that protects people from confiscations and pursuits that are unreasonable. It also states that authorities must issue a warrant with probable cause and it must indicate a particular location where they can search. As interpreted by the Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment relates to a government pursuit and the requirement for the warrant is commonly triggered if the search happens to intrude a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Therefore, even if expectation of privacy exists in certain kinds of information or property, it is commonly the key to determining if the Fourth Amendment can still apply to government actions.

The Heart of the Dispute

The Carpenter case revolves around the “third-party doctrine”, which argues that the society must give up their constitutional expectation of privacy every time they willingly share non-information data to third parties, including financial institutions, internet service provider and phone companies.

The third-party policy collects two separate strands of Fourth Amendment theory, which mentions that the voluntary behavior of individuals can have an impact on the type of approval to government pursuits. It also discloses that people won’t be able to declare privacy interest in assets that they don’t possess or own anymore.

The Contribution of Technology

Back in 2013, Edward Snowden exposed the government by releasing massive telephone metadata collection. It prompted extensive public debate regarding the constitutionality of the type of surveillance. Because of the third-party doctrine, it’s hard to view the dispute that it was unconstitutional. The Snowden case even highlighted the fact that technology has radically altered the implication of privacy of the third-party doctrine.

The digital age involves individuals disclosing huge data regarding themselves every time they do mundane errands. This includes the contact numbers that they text or dial to their providers, the email addresses and URLs they communicate with their Internet service providers, as well as, the medications, books and groceries they obtain from online retailers.

Technology didn’t only alter both quantity and quality of information that people willingly share to third parties, it also radically improved the ability of the government to gather bigger amounts of the aforementioned data. They will be able to combine the gathered information from an array of sources and store the combined information for pre-determined pickers, such as transactional or physical patterns, kinds of transactions and particular individuals.

Users these days are not only oversharing information to third parties, but they have given the government freedom to utilize those data that they might not want them to have in the first place. For now, the Supreme Court allowed certiorari in the Carpenter case. Time will tell whether this phone location case will change the future of privacy.

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