4th Amendment Concerns with Constantly Expanding Technological Innovations

4th Amendment Concerns with Constantly Expanding Technological Innovations

By Madison Blevins

As technology has expanded, so have the constitutional implications attached to it. Because technological changes tend to expose existing law as inadequate to address and manage changes that innovation creates, the Supreme Court and the legislature must work to both create new law and reinterpret previous constitutional law as it relates to technology.[1] A great example of the Supreme Court of the United States reinterpreting previous constitutional interpretation is the case of Carpenter v. United States.[2] In this case, the Supreme Court held that “law enforcement collection of cell-site location information for an extended period was a search under the Fourth Amendment and required a warrant.”[3] The court in this case adjusted constitutional law because of a piece of digital technology that was disrupting relationships between the “governed and the government.”[4]

In Carpenter, the police tried to access historical cell site information without a warrant.[5] Because the information was able to be tracked simply by having his cell phone on, the government was able to use data to get over 12,000 location points and through that were able to match Carpenter to four different robberies.[6] The government in this case was accessing cell-site location information (CSLI) from Carpenter’s cell phone.[7] This was a narrow decision on CSLI data, with the question being if someone was a reasonable expectation of privacy under the 4th amendment to his physical movements, and was this a search of his phone?[8]

The court held that yes, this extremely extensive access to someone’s physical movements through access to their technology was a search and as such, a warrant was required.[9] The rule of law coming out of the case is that the government must generally obtain a warrant that is supported by probable cause to access cell phone data of this kind, subject to exigent circumstances.[10]

This was a change for the Supreme Court based on the expanding accessibility that technology gives in regards to the most private aspects of a person’s life.[11] While the government may have thought that the Third Party Doctrine of the past covered the use of interfering with Carpenter’s physical movements, because of the intrusiveness of accessing someone’s every move through their technology, the Supreme Court declined to expand this doctrine to the present circumstance.[12] While there is still an exception for exigent circumstances, if the government is interfering with physical movements, via technological advances or otherwise, it is a search and a warrant based on probable cause is required.[13]

The Supreme Court stressed that although this was a narrow decision and did not obliterate the Third Party Doctrine for technology completely, but they did decline to “mechanically appl[y]” the doctrine to information about a person’s location generated automatically by cellphones, devices which have become indispensable in modern society.[14]

I think this shows a huge step in the right direction for how the Supreme Court will handle data privacy and the 4th amendment right to privacy in the future. As technology expands, we as citizens should not lose our right to privacy as a consequence. Both the legislature and the Supreme court should be aware of these issues and keep them in mind as they consider how new technological advances might have adverse constitutional implications.

[1] David P. Fidler, The Supreme Court Adapts Constitutional Law to Address Technological Change, Council on Foreign Relations (July 11, 2018, 11:05 AM), https://www.cfr.org/blog/supreme-court-adapts-constitutional-law-address-technological-change.

[2] See id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See generally Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018).

[6] See id at 2212.

[7] Id. at 2216.

[8] See id.

[9] See id. at 2223.

[10] See Carpenter, 138 S. Ct. at 2223.

[11] Id. at 2217–18.

[12] Id. at 2217.

[13] See id. at 2223 (explaining how the CSLI access here was a search requiring a warrant, but if law enforcement is confronted with an urgent situation, fact-specific threats will likely justify the warrantless collection of CSLI).

[14] Fidler, supra note 1.

Image source: https://smallbiztrends.com/2019/12/history-of-cell-phones.html