The cellphone is rapidly becoming the most universal accessory among human beings anywhere in the world. The expansion of its use and capability has made the cellphone not just a communications device but the planner, personal computer, mapping mechanism and record storage device for most people.
It has another function that most people do not fully appreciate: tracking device. The use of the cellphone as a surveillance tool is at the heart of a major privacy case heard by the Supreme Court this week in Carpenter v. United States. At issue may be the very future of privacy in America. This argument is occurring almost 50 years to the day that the court issued its historic decision in Katz v. United States, which established the current test for privacy. The question is whether the court will celebrate that anniversary with a new ruling effectively gutting privacy for future generations.
The great burden of civil liberties is that we often must fight for our most cherished principles in defense of the least redeeming persons. As is often the case, this controversy starts with a thoroughly unsympathetic character: Timothy Ivory Carpenter, who was the ringleader of a gang accused of a series of robberies including, ironically, the robbery of cellphone stores in and around Detroit. The gang valued smartphones and so did the police. The police asked cellphone carriers to track Carpenter’s phone for 127 days. The companies supplied 12,898 tracking locations from Carpenter’s movements, including locations near the robberies. He was arrested and eventually given 116 years.