Protect Our Metadata a Supreme Court Privacy Case for the Digital Age

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 11, 2017 | Go to article overview

Protect Our Metadata a Supreme Court Privacy Case for the Digital Age


A Supreme Court case that could redefine privacy law in the 21st century began with a robbery in Detroit.

The perpetrators held up eight more stores in Michigan and Ohio over a three-month period. In April 2011, law enforcement apprehended four suspects, one of whom confessed to the crimes and gave the FBI his cell phone number, as well as those of his cohorts.

Police then obtained 127 days' worth of records from cell phone companies showing the movements of the man who had organized most of the robberies, Timothy Carpenter. The data placed Mr. Carpenter's phone at 12,898 locations, some of them nearby the stores when the robberies took place. Prosecutors used the information to reach a conviction. It has since been appealed all the way up to the nation's highest court, which heard oral arguments late last month.

Mr. Carpenter's defense argues that without a warrant, this collection of tracking data by law enforcement constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure, which is prohibited under the Fourth Amendment.

Collecting the metadata of a phone conversation - the who, when, where and how long of the exchange, but never the what - is not considered an unreasonable search under U.S. law at present.

The legal principle behind this stance is known as the "third-party records doctrine," which asserts, essentially, that a person surrenders his constitutional privacy right over information that he turns over to a third-party. Pre-internet and pre-smartphone, this principle was uncontroversial.

But most people today share information with third parties from the moment they leave bed in the morning until the moment they go to bed at night. …

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