The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides protection to all people from unreasonable search and seizure of their person, home, papers and effects. In the more than 200 years since this document was drafted, a lot has changed in terms of how we define privacy. In the modern era, there is a question of whether “papers and effects” also encompasses property such as digital data.
A case recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court raises the question of whether people’s cell phone content is entitled to the same privacies as other tangible property. The court’s ruling-which is expected next summer-could change how the law deals with issues of digital privacy.
The case involves a string of Radio Shack robberies that took place in Michigan and Ohio. The crimes were carried out by multiple people, but one individual was suspected of having orchestrated the entire series. Prosecutors pulled cell phone records from various companies. After combing through months’ worth of data, they were able to use the GSP coordinates of the suspect’s phone to demonstrate that the suspect was located near the scene of many of the crimes at the time they took place.
The question now is whether this form of search and seizure was legal. Should the government have access to an unlimited timeline of personal details about a given person? In the case of a criminal mastermind, perhaps it’s easy to argue that the government should have access to any information necessary to find and convict such a person. But the law doesn’t apply to certain people-it applies to everyone. Should the government be able to track where you sleep? Or when you go to church? This question is widely disputed.
In the case above, the defense has argued that a warrant should be required for anyone who wants to obtain more than 24 hours’ worth of GPS data. We will wait to see what the court decides.