There will be no dearth of people paying close attention to a case focused upon cellphones and privacy in the United States Supreme Court’s upcoming autumn term.
Privacy rights are, of course, a big deal in a democracy, especially in an ever-evolving society in which vast technological inroads have made it progressively easier for criminal law authorities to gain access to huge amounts of data via new platforms.
Like mass retrievals of citizens’ cellphone-related data from cellphone towers, for instance.
As noted in media reports from across the country, that is precisely what is at the core of a case impending before SCOTUS that will task justices with formulating what ACLU attorneys involved in the matter call a “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard. The case spotlights cellphone data collection by government agents and offices.
Privacy advocates are keenly invested in the case. They believe it serves well as a litmus test for gauging how “a doctrine developed long before the digital age” applies in a modern world where high-tech assists make it quick and easy for government authorities to collect massive amounts of sensitive data about individuals.
In the case at bar, criminal investigators collected information relevant to a robbery suspect’s movements under the federal Stored Communications Act.
Specifically, cellphone carriers provided them with phone records that covered many months and involved close to 13,000 pinpointed locations. That evidence materially contributed to the defendant’s conviction on multiple robbery counts and yielded him a prison sentence of more than a century in duration.
The magnitude of that collection — obtained without authorities having to show probable cause for the seizure — is highly problematic and troubling to legions of critics advocating for expanded privacy protections. One attorney representing the appellants calls it “police overreach.”
Although the case is seminal, it will almost certainly be followed by a steady string of other privacy-related matters into the nation’s courts, including some that are ultimately reviewed on appeal by SCOTUS at the highest level. Ever-expanding technological innovations would reasonably seem to assure that.