A huge win for privacy last year has been reversed this Tuesday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The court ruled that citizens have no expectation of privacy when it comes to records held by a third party, such as a cellphone company.
Police departments no longer need a warrant to search through your cellphone record from wireless carriers.
According to VICE:
The ruling is a significant setback for privacy rights in the digital age—one expertcalled it “devastatingly bad for privacy”— and runs contrary to trends in several states. In the last couple of years, Montana, Maine, and Minnesota, have all passed laws requiring local police to obtain warrants when requesting cellphone records, including historical location data pulled off of cell phone towers, from phone carriers like AT&T or Verizon.
In this case, prosecutors obtained 11,606 location records from MetroPCS, the cellphone carrier of Quartavious Davis, a suspect in a series of armed robberies. The records showed Davis’ whereabouts based on the cellphone towers that his phone connected to over the span of 67 days.
Because the private data was in the possession of the carrier, the court ruled that it did not belong to Davis, but instead the carrier.
“The government’s obtaining MetroPCS records, showing historical cell tower locations, did not involve a physical intrusion on private property or a search at all,” reads the decision. “The records belonged to a private company, not Davis.”
By this logic, cops should be able to sift through your medical records, personal financial data, Dropbox files and anything else that is not stored directly on your private property.
The very same court ruled against such an intrusion last June. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit decided in 2014,
“We hold that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The obtaining of that data without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation.”
So why the sudden change of heart? Well, like all things police state, freedom is but a temporary virtue.
According to Nate Wessler, an ACLU attorney who argued the case, the court applied an “outdated doctrine from the analog age to this very sensitive digital records.”
The would-be tyrants dug up a law from the 1970’s and applied it to today’s digital age.
“The implications of applying the third party doctrine to these digital records are really wide reaching,” Wessler told VICE, “because we live so much of our lives online, in the cloud or using technologies that leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs behind us.”
The one judge who dissented in the court’s ruling spoke up about the overt privacy issues surrounding this decision.
“Now, under the majority’s rule, the Fourth Amendment allows the government to know from YouTube.com what we watch, or Facebook.com what we post or whom we ‘friend,’ or Amazon.com what we buy, or Wikipedia.com what we research, or Match.com whom we date—all without a warrant,” Judge Beverly Martin wrote.
This case will likely be appealed to the supreme court, but for now, the ruling stands.
The implications of such a ruling are indeed grim. Police unions nationwide are likely salivating over the ability to read your text messages, check your location records, or perhaps browse through your iCloud library. After all, since it’s on the cloud, they aren’t violating your private property when they scroll through the intimate photos you took of your romantic getaway last weekend.