Last Thursday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in Carpenter v. United States. At issue was whether the FBI violated the Fourth Amendment when it obtained the cellphone location records of Timothy Carpenter. The FBI used these records to establish Mr. Carpenter’s whereabouts during time periods in which certain armed robberies occurred. The government argued that Mr. Carpenter did not have an expectation of privacy in these records and, thus, no warrant was required. Mr. Carpenter argued that “carrying a smartphone, checking for new emails from one’s boss, updating the weather forecast, and downloading directions ought not license total surveillance of a person’s entire life.”
In recent years, the Court has limited the ability of law enforcement to gather information without a warrant in two other situations. In 2012, the Court held that law enforcement could not install a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car without a warrant in United States v. Jones. Two years later, the Court held that a suspect’s phone could not be searched without a warrant in Riley v. California. In Jones, Justice Sotomayor suggested that the Court might have to reconsider whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in information that is voluntarily disclosed to third parties. Generally, the third-party doctrine holds that individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy to information that they voluntarily give to third parties (such as banks, phone companies, internet service providers and e-mail servers. Justice Sotomayor wrote, “[t]his approach is ill-suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.”
During oral argument, several of the Justices appeared to be troubled by the government’s argument that the Fourth Amendment was not implicated in this case. Their concerns ranged from trepidation that if the government were able to take advantage of the amount of data collected by evolving technology the Fourth Amendment may become meaningless to questioning whether property rights may be implicated. The Court’s decision in Carpenter will have enormous import for not only how law enforcement can gather cellphone information, but also how the third-party doctrine applies to technology as more and more devices collect information on our daily lives.