The big cell-phone privacy case, Carpenter v. U.S., will be argued this week in the Supreme Court. I argued the same issue before the en banc 11th Circuit in U.S. v. Quartavious Davis, so this is an issue close to home for me. A few members of the 11th Circuit questioned whether the 3rd party doctrine should apply in our new technological world. This morning in the Washington Post, the lawyer who successfully argued Smith v. Maryland (one of the 2 leading 3rd party cases), wrote an op-ed saying (rightfully) that those old cases should not apply to our cell-phones:
That new world is defined by the rapid increase in sophisticated — and invasive — technology. It is also defined by a relentless and pervasive assault on privacy. As journalist Julia Angwin has shown in her book “Dragnet Nation,” the new digital world can track our movements, seize our secrets, manipulate our finances and much more.
In such a world, the very notion of a “legitimate expectation of privacy” seems antique.
There is evidence that the courts are catching on. Most predictive, perhaps, are the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, concurring in a 2012 case holding that the clandestine and warrantless attachment of a GPS tracking device to a defendant’s car was an unconstitutional search. Sotomayor suggested that “the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties” is “ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.” As Sotomayor noted, “People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the email addresses with which they correspond to their internet service providers; and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers.”
Sotomayor is right. The Supreme Court should develop a modern Fourth Amendment doctrine. Such a test would recognize the legitimate claims of law enforcement but set objective boundaries — such as the duration of an intrusion or the nature of the data seized — that constrain those claims. The Carpenter case is the court’s opportunity to do so.
The world has changed profoundly since I argued Smith v. Maryland. And as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. taught us long ago: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.”