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Paul Merrell

The Supreme Court's Groundbreaking Privacy Victory for the Digital Age | American Civil... - 0 views

  • The Supreme Court on Friday handed down what is arguably the most consequential privacy decision of the digital age, ruling that police need a warrant before they can seize people’s sensitive location information stored by cellphone companies.

    The case specifically concerns the privacy of cellphone location data, but the ruling has broad implications for government access to all manner of information collected about people and stored by the purveyors of popular technologies. In its decision, the court rejects the government’s expansive argument that people lose their privacy rights merely by using those technologies.

    Carpenter v. U.S., which was argued by the ACLU, involves Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in 2013 of a string of burglaries in Detroit. To tie Carpenter to the burglaries, FBI agents obtained — without seeking a warrant — months’ worth of his location information from Carpenter’s cellphone company. They got almost 13,000 data points tracking Carpenter’s whereabouts during that period, revealing where he slept, when he attended church, and much more. Indeed, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Friday’s decision, “when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”.

  • The ACLU argued the agents had violated Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment rights when they obtained such detailed records without a warrant based on probable cause. In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court agreed, recognizing that the Fourth Amendment must apply to records of such unprecedented breadth and sensitivity:

    Mapping a cell phone’s location over the course of 127 days provides an all-encompassing record of the holder’s whereabouts. As with GPS information, the timestamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’

  • The government’s argument that it needed no warrant for these records extends far beyond cellphone location information, to any data generated by modern technologies and held by private companies rather than in our own homes or pockets. To make their case, government lawyers relied on an outdated, 1970s-era legal doctrine that says that once someone shares information with a “third party” — in Carpenter’s case, a cellphone company — that data is no longer protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court made abundantly clear that this doctrine has its limits and cannot serve as a carte blanche for the government seizure of any data of its choosing without judicial oversight.

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  • While the decision extends in the immediate term only to historical cellphone location data, the Supreme Court’s reasoning opens the door to the protection of the many other kinds of data generated by popular technologies.

    Today’s decision provides a groundbreaking update to privacy rights that the digital age has rendered vulnerable to abuse by the government’s appetite for surveillance. It recognizes that “cell phones and the services they provide are ‘such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life’ that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society.” And it helps ensure that we don’t have to give up those rights if we want to participate in modern life. 

Paul Merrell

Microsoft Says U.S. Is Abusing Secret Warrants - 0 views

  • “WE APPRECIATE THAT there are times when secrecy around a government warrant is needed,” Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in a blog post on Thursday. “But based on the many secrecy orders we have received, we question whether these orders are grounded in specific facts that truly demand secrecy. To the contrary, it appears that the issuance of secrecy orders has become too routine.”

    With those words, Smith announced that Microsoft was suing the Department of Justice for the right to inform its customers when the government is reading their emails.

    The last big fight between the Justice Department and Silicon Valley was started by law enforcement, when the FBI demanded that Apple unlock a phone used by San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan Farook.

    This time, Microsoft is going on the offensive. The move is welcomed by privacy activists as a step forward for transparency — though it’s also for business reasons.

  • Secret government searches are eroding people’s trust in the cloud, Smith wrote — including large and small businesses now keeping massive amounts of records online. “The transition to the cloud does not alter people’s expectations of privacy and should not alter the fundamental constitutional requirement that the government must — with few exceptions — give notice when it searches and seizes private information or communications,” he wrote.

    According to the complaint, Microsoft received 5,624 federal demands for customer information or data in the past 18 months. Almost half — 2,576 — came with gag orders, and almost half of those — 1,752 — had “no fixed end date” by which Microsoft would no longer be sworn to secrecy.

    These requests, though signed off on by a judge, qualify as unconstitutional searches, the attorneys argue. It “violates both the Fourth Amendment, which affords people and businesses the right to know if the government searches or seizes their property, and the First Amendment, which enshrines Microsoft’s rights to talk to its customers and to discuss how the government conducts its investigations — subject only to restraints narrowly tailored to serve compelling government interests,” they wrote.

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    The Fourth Amendment argument that people have a right to know when their property has been searched or seized is particularly interesting to me. If adopted by the Courts, that could spell the end of surveillance gag orders. 
Paul Merrell

Fourth Circuit adopts mosaic theory, holds that obtaining "extended" cell-site records ... - 0 views

  • A divided Fourth Circuit has ruled, in United States v. Graham, that “the government conducts a search under the Fourth Amendment when it obtains and inspects a cell phone user’s historical [cell-site location information] for an extended period of time” and that obtaining such records requires a warrant.

    The new case creates multiple circuit splits, which may lead to Supreme Court review. Specifically, the decision creates a clear circuit split with the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits on whether acquiring cell-site records is a search. It also creates an additional clear circuit split with the Eleventh Circuit on whether, if cell-site records are protected, a warrant is required. Finally, it also appears to deepen an existing split between the Fifth and Third Circuits on whether the Stored Communications Act allows the government to choose whether to obtain an intermediate court order or a warrant for cell-site records.

    This post will cover the reasoning of the new case in detail.

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