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Tech companies to Supreme Court: Warrantless phone tracking is unconstitutional

Associated Press

14 major U.S tech companies filed an amicus legal brief Augu 14 asking the U.S Supreme Court to heighten cell phone data protections from government officials.

The companies filed a 44-page brief concerning Carpenter v. United States, which disputes whether government agencies can acquire cell phone location information without a warrant.

Google, Facebook, Verizon Wireless, and others argued for stronger privacy protections because of the trust between consumers and companies.

“That users rely on technology companies to process their data for limited purposes does not mean that they expect their intimate data to be monitored by the government without a warrant,” the brief said.

The case stems from a 2011 robbery investigation in which police obtained 127 days worth of cell phone location data (12,898 separate location points) of Timothy Carpenter from wireless carriers without a warrant.

Federal prosecutors used the data to show Carpenter was near the locations at the time. He was then convicted of six robberies and sentenced to 116 years in prison.

Carpenter argued his Fourth Amendment right was violated because police required a warrant to access personal information. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Carpenter because the records were held by third-parties, not himself.

Carpenter v. United States is set for the Supreme Court’s October term.

While supporting neither side, the companies argued the Court should update the application of the Fourth Amendment to “better reflect the realities of today’s digital technologies and accommodate the technologies of the future.”

This case will be ruled in a time of heightened scrutiny of law enforcement and government agency surveillance programs in a world where technology collects more personal data than ever before.

Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing Carpenter, said that “the tech firms are sending a very clear message that the law needs to catch up with the technology that is now an integral part of our everyday lives.”

Wessler said that Verizon’s involvement stands out because they possess consumer location information.

The brief said that law enforcement last year obtained around 40,000 warrants requiring Verizon to turn over cell phone location information services.

Carpenter v. United States is “one of the most important Fourth Amendment cases in recent memory,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s executive vice president for public policy and general counsel, wrote on Monday.

He continued. “Although the specific issue presented to the Court is about location information, the case presents a broader issue about a customer’s reasonable expectation of privacy for other types of sensitive data she shares with any third party.”

“This key issue rests at the intersection between privacy (our desire to be free from government intrusion) and security (our need for law enforcement to investigate crime). Our hope is that when it decides this case, the Court will help us better apply old Fourth Amendment doctrines to an evolving digital era.”

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