A series of armed robberies that took place a few weeks before Christmas in 2010 has led to a huge controversy about digital privacy. The FBI suspected a man named Timothy Carpenter to be the mastermind who orchestrated the robberies and obtained his cellphone location data from phone companies to get him convicted. They collected 127 days’ worth of records which placed his phone at over 12,000 different locations, including all the robberies. Carpenter was sentenced to 116 years in prison which he later appealed, arguing that the cellphone location data evidence should be thrown out since it was obtained without a warrant and violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
The Fourth Amendment was written in the 1700s and protects against unreasonable search and seizure. It does not yet account for a world in which we carry around devices that constantly monitor our movements and contain all of our communications.
The case Carpenter v. the United States will decide whether the government has the right to compel cellphone providers and technology companies to hand over private information without a warrant. The ruling will also affect whether the government can obtain emails and text messages. Final decision is expected by June 2018.