Supreme Court Discusses Digital Privacy

Search Encrypt/ December 1, 2017/ News/ 0 comments

Carpenter v. United States Should Help Protect Smartphone & Internet Users

The Supreme Court is looking at digital privacy issues this week. It is determining where to draw the line between privacy and security.

The case at hand involves Timothy Ivory Carpenter. He was convicted of a series of robberies in 2010 based on cellphone data that revealed his location for a period of 127 days. Carpenter later appealed the case, claiming that the location data from his cellphone should be thrown out, because it was obtained without a warrant.

Metro PCS handed over location records for Carpenter’s phone. These records placed his phone at more than 12,000 unique locations. The Supreme Court is discussing whether authorities using this information is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Fourth Amendment Doesn’t Work for Digital Information

The Fourth Amendment has been around since the 1700’s. There is no way that, in its current form, it could account for the types of devices we now carry with us at all times. This amendment needs to be updated to protect citizens against the types of unreasonable searches they’ll encounter in the modern world.

“Most Americans, I still think, want to avoid Big Brother,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “They want to avoid the concept that the government will be able to see and locate you anywhere you are at any point in time.”

In 2011, lawmakers passed a so-called “Privacy Bill of Rights”, however it didn’t apply to data mining, surveillance or any other ways the government collects American’s personal information. It applied to companies, and some nonprofits, but not to federal state or local police agencies. Hopefully this new Supreme Court case can add more layers of protection for U.S. citizens.

What Does This Mean For Search Engines?

Carpenter v. United States will decide if the government can force mobile providers and technology companies to disclose information without a warrant. The information discussed goes far beyond location data contained on a cellphone. It includes all digital files that companies may store about their users. This means that the government could demand your internet behavior data from Google, and the company would have to turn it over.

Private Search Engines Have Nothing To Worry About

Search Engines that don’t track user data don’t have any information that would be incriminating to their users. While Google, Bing and other major search engines create complex profiles of their users, to sell to advertisers, and to target users with ads, private search engines keep all user data separate from search terms.

“The government’s argument, based on rulings from the analog era, would free it to get comprehensive records of what websites we view, what Google searches we enter, and even our voice commands to smart devices — without constitutional limit,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, the ACLU attorney representing Carpenter.

Private search engines, like Search Encrypt, could open their doors to the NSA, FBI, CIA, or any organization, and none of the search data could be linked to individual users. So if you want to protect your internet searches, using a private search engine is your best bet.

Digital Privacy Isn’t New, But Feels like the Wild West

Those concerned with digital privacy have voiced their opinions since the beginning of the internet. However, with no clear statutes on how to approach privacy with smartphones and internet data, issues have to be looked at on a case-to-case basis.

If we establish concrete laws about how to approach digital information in legal matters, the public will be more aware of how they can be monitored. Generally, new laws that actually apply to modern technology will help avoid more intrusive searches.

So What Are The Impacts of Carpenter v. United States?

  • Timothy Carpenter is not likely to be released, regardless of ruling. The Good Faith Exception to the Fourth Amendment says that if law enforcement believed they were acquiring the information legally, it is still valid evidence in court.
  • Large Tech Companies are pushing for modernizing the Fourth Amendment. Apple, Facebook and Google filed a brief to the Supreme Court explaining that transmitting information is in the nature of digital technology. However, users do not expect that they are sharing their information with the government, simply by using the technology.
  • The past cases used in determining if a search of internet/phone data is constitutional are Smith v. Maryland (1979) and Riley v. California (2014). Carpenter v. United States should help laws apply better to modern technology.
  • As it stands, consumers are essentially sharing their data with the government just by using cellphones or the internet. Privacy advocates agree that this will lead to negative outcomes if no changes are made. Carpenter v. United States aims to protect digital consumers and tech companies alike.


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