Unless you’ve been on a tropical vacation these past few weeks, long away from any cell service, you have heard the Supreme’s Court recent ruling. In the 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Timothy Carpenter’s motion to suppress his Cell Tower Record data from evidence. From this point forward, a release of any cell tower records for a time-span longer than six days may only be disclosed to law enforcement with an approved search warrant.
This groundbreaking case began with the arrest of four men, suspected of robbery. In a desperate attempt to lighten their sentences, these men revealed names and phone numbers of past accomplices. Investigators went one step further and extracted contact numbers of past communcations. One of these numbers was traced back to Timothy Carpenter. Under the Stored Communication Act, Police retrieved more than a hundred days worth of cell tower location data. This data served as incriminating evidence suggesting Carpenter’s involvement in a collection of robberies. Incredibly, Carpenter filed a motion to suppress the digital evidence, thus sparking this revolutionary court decision.
While this was most likely not his goal, his case has opened the eyes of the Supreme court justices to the further intricacies of the 4th amendment in the modern era. Timothy Carpenter has now played an enormous part in providing more digital privacy to United States citizens. But how?
Most people are familiar with how the 4th amendment in the Bill of Rights protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizure without court approved warrants based on probable cause. This amendment serves to protect both a person and his property from unnecessary government interaction. Initially, this amendment was self explanatory. Exceptions to requirements of probable cause for searches were later introduced including situations such as “search incident to an arrest”, “borders”, and “exigent circumstances”. These exceptions are mostly beneficial to society and allow for better protection of officers and the safety of citizens. Recently though, technology has been increasing at an exponential rate. Every bit of technology is becoming thinner, more powerful, and more affordable for the general public. Since more and more data started to be placed onto tiny handheld devices, more of our private lives were being brought around with us.
During a typical arrest or traffic stop where probable cause of a crime is present, an officer may search the vehicle, or the person and his immediate area. Now that phones can include mass amounts of data, the police have much more opportunities to find potentially incriminating data. They also have a greater potential to be searching through Gigabytes of personal and unrelated data. In the famous case “Riley v. California”, this exact matter was examined. Riley argued that the modern person is carrying far more data on himself than he ever has before. Therefore, it is an outright violation of privacy for an officer to be able to look at all of this data, say his personal emails or even high score on Candy Crush. The courts agreed and found that the search of a cell phone requires a warrant (under most circumstances).
Riley v. California helped protect our cell phone data on our phones, while Carpenter v. United States is helping protect our cell phone data that is not stored on our phones. Specifically, this case focuses on Cell Tower Record data. In case you are unaware, most normal cell phones work because they are connected by a network created with cell towers. These cell towers allow phones to communicate with each others, access the web, and more. One benefit to the logistics of cell tower data, is its ability to provide location data of cell phones. Metadata logs are kept of each device that connects to the tower. This information is stored/tracked by the cellular network providers and mainly used for business purposes of noting tower failures, and when/where they need more infrastructure. However, law enforcement has been able to request this same tower connection data for specific cellular devices in order to be used for location tracking. By seeing that a phone was connected to a specific tower at a specific time, you are able to prove a suspect was (or was not) present at certain scene. You may be asking how this was legal. Well, since the cell networks were owned by private companies, it was their right to do with the data as they wish. By signing up for cell phone plans, the customers basically agreed to this. Therefore, they were legally allowed to disclose the record to law enforcement without yours or a judge’s approval. Until now.
Carpenter’s main argument was basically that we are now entirely too reliant on this technology being in our everyday lives. That is nearly impossible to live a normal life without carrying a cell phone around 24/7. The amount of location data this can generate is absurd, and would be viewed as an outrageous invasion of daily privacy by the founding fathers. His case alone called upon more than a hundred days of location points. That is more than one hundred days that his every move was carefully and automatically tracked. The only option to prevent his location from being shared was by not using a cellular device. This is no easy task when every job application, and online service requires you to create an account with a phone number. Five of the Supreme Court seats agreed with Carpenter’s statement and have now made it mandatory for law enforcement to obtain a signed search warrant if they wish to extract cell tower data past six days.
Personally, I have been very interested in this case. The previous consensus was that since it technically was the phone company’s data, they could do with it as they wished. To see a change like this means that old law is constantly under reflection. It is comforting to see that law is making more and more progression in adapting to the advancements in technology. From a forensics standpoint, this may requirement more work and long case time, but it will help protect privacy more.
After all, anytime I witness people seeing their google location history for the first time, they are always shocked and freaked out. Most of them immediately take action to remove their google account from devices and turn off location sharing. Imagine if they were shown all of their cell tower location data ever. Their reactions would be an amplified version of this. Privacy is an important part of this nation, and highly viewed by the people. It is good to see the government reinforcing that.
-16-402 Carpenter v. United States
-Riley v. California: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2013/13-132
-Carpenter v. United States NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/06/22/605007387/supreme-court-rules-police-need-warrant-to-get-location-information-from-cell-to
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