The Supreme Court’s Carpenter vs. US decision today will have far-reaching impacts, because it extends constitutional protections to cell site location information and not just to the actual content or words and sounds of a cellphone call or text message. The government now needs a warrant issued by a judge in order to obtain long-term, detailed records of the location of a cell phone.
The ruling also is significant because the Court reasons that constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures must change as technology advances, surely a sign that more change will come. Furthermore, the Court struck down Congress’s protections for cell site location information. That is, the FBI fully complied with the Stored Communications Act and obtained federal court orders requiring Sprint and another carrier to turn over the geolocation information. Those orders are less difficult for police to obtain than are search warrants. Now, more stringent search warrants are required.
Nevertheless, the Court affirmed that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties … even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose.”
The so-called “Third Party Records Doctrine” survives; the Court found that it does not apply to long-term “encyclopedic” geographic information generated by cell phones. Striking down this doctrine would have had enormous implications for government investigations, both for law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The Court not only did not go that far, but it reaffirmed the basic principle that the Constitution does not protect evidence a person voluntarily provides to someone else.
These matters are complex. The justices wrote 119 pages to explain their reasoning. Also, the decision was 5-4, decided by just one vote. Today’s decision is, in the words of the Court, “a narrow one.” It is a step toward extending Constitutional protections in the cyber age, but only a step. It points a direction, but the Court is proceeding one step at a time.
Professor William C. Snyder