A case that will be decided before the US Supreme Court has brought some unlikely supporters together. Fourteen major tech giants have all voiced their support for increased consumer privacy protections, including a well-known telecom provider.
Verizon has long been known for cooperating with law enforcement and government agencies when it comes to customers’ data, but much of that stems from a ‘70s-era ruling concerning the communications providers. When that ruling was created, the most a search of a specific landline telephone account could provide was call length, location, and who placed the call. It didn’t indicate the content of the call or the actual identity of the person who engaged in the phone call.
Now, however, everything has changed. Today’s cellular phones can provide the full content of text messages and emails, GPS coordinates to the various locations where the phone had been used, voice recordings of calls and messages, geotagged photographs, biometric markers like fingerprints and facial recognition, and address books filled with hundreds of contacts. And that’s why Verizon feels that there needs to be a fresh look at the laws protecting individuals’ privacy.
The case before the Supreme Court, Carpenter v United States, actually focuses on the specific location information that a cell phone provides. Law enforcement officials are able to follow the phone as it “pings” different cellular towers, as well as triangulate the phone’s position based on multiple towers. That means the police can place the suspect at the scene of a crime at an exact moment in time; attorneys argue that this violates the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights unless the officers have a search warrant.
There are always different sides to any legal story, and in order to reach the country’s highest court, the issue must also address a never-before-heard series of arguments. That’s precisely the stand that Verizon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and other companies who’ve filed the brief are stating: the times are changing, the technology is evolving, but we’re still relying on laws and rulings that were made in a time when the industry couldn’t have even envisioned the smartphone. This case serves as an important reminder that our legal protections and our privacy rights need to keep up with the latest technology, perhaps more now than ever before.