One of the great ironies of modern life: Technology has made life easier, but it’s also made life more complex. It’s great that location data has made the road atlas obsolete, but how much privacy can you reasonably expect when you’re voluntarily carrying a powerful tracking device?
That was the underlying question in Carpenter v. United States, a landmark case from the Supreme Court’s 2018 session, in which the court ruled 5-4 that law enforcement needs a warrant to access cell phone location records (in most cases).
These are the types of questions attorneys have hotly debated for decades — even before the first search warrant was issued for computer storage on Feb. 19, 1971. In 1928, the Supreme Court ruled in Olmstead v. United States that warrant-less wiretapping was legal, equating private phone conversations to conversations overhead in a public place. The court overturned that decision in 1967’s Katz v. United States, when the majority opinion held that the Fourth Amendment protected “people, not places” and that a person had a reasonable expectation to privacy when conducting a phone call from a phone booth.
The privacy debate continues today
There’s no end to the privacy questions raised by technology. Also during the 2018 session, the Supreme Court considered the case of United States v. Microsoft Corp., where the central question was whether a U.S.-based technology could be forced to hand over email records stored on servers abroad (in this case, a drug dealer’s Hotmail messages stored on a server in Ireland). Ultimately, the court didn’t issue an opinion in this case, citing the newly passed Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act (CLOUD Act), which makes U.S. v. Microsoft Corp. moot. Per CLOUD, if there’s a warrant involved, a tech company must turn over the requested data, regardless of where it’s stored.
All interesting questions — and the pervasive thought on each will surely evolve as quickly as the technology itself.
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