US Supreme Court to rule on key privacy issue… and a surprising tech company has weighed into the debate

The US Supreme Court was filed with a brief last week demanding that it seeks to introduce a more stringent scheme of warrant requirements for law enforcement agencies to be able to access personal data from mobile devices. It was filed by 14 of the USA’s biggest tech companies, including one particularly surprising name.

Verizon stands up for user privacy. No, really!

Verizon is one of the USA’s biggest Internet Service Providers and has long been seen as a company willing to fully comply with whatever demands the Government made of it in regard to customer data. They are even thought to have been involved in the building of infrastructure which has been used by US intelligence agencies to undertake surveillance against American citizens.

But on this occasion, they have joined with names that are more traditionally seen on such challenges to Government surveillance powers, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, to challenge what they see as oversight of the Fourth Amendment of the American Constitution.

The brief which was filed relates to the case of Carpenter v United States, which will be heard by the US Supreme Court later in the year. It relates to a case from 2011, when US law enforcement bodies accessed 12,898 location records over a 4-month period, of a man called Timothy Carpenter.

Carpenter was convicted of the crime he was accused of, but as part of his appeal is arguing that the use of this data without a warrant is a breach of his rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Writing last week, Verizon’s executive vice president for public policy and general counsel, Craig Silliman, described the case as “one of the most important Fourth Amendment cases in recent memory,” noting that it “presents a broader issue about a customer’s reasonable expectation of privacy for other types of sensitive data she shares with any third party.”

Why is Verizon getting involved?

Verizon’s involvement has raised eyebrows particularly because they hold the type of location records which are particularly relevant to this case. Their willingness to become involved has been praised, but Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, urges a note of caution.

“At the end of the day, a company like Verizon isn’t going to stick its neck out if it doesn’t think that there’s a business rationale in addition to it being the right thing to do,” he said.

There is evidence that they have been getting ready to take this step for a while now. This article is not the first that Craig Silliman has written on his concerns over the Fourth Amendment. It shows that even big tech companies are becoming more aware of public concerns about online privacy and the role telecoms companies play in sharing their data with the authorities.

While no other telecoms company has signed up to this brief, the presence of Verizon could potentially set a precedent in the future. Their step could turn the tide in favour of customer privacy and reflect a great deal of positive publicity for them too of course. But it is far too soon to conclude whether that is the case or not.

Applying the Fourth Amendment in a Digital Age

Craig Silliman’s concludes his article by saying “Our hope is that when it decides this case, the Court will help us better apply old Fourth Amendment doctrines to an evolving digital era.” This is why the other companies on the brief have signed up. They hold data from emails, web activity, and smartphone usage which are still governed by legal precedents set in the 1970’s before the internet even existed.

As Nathan Freed Wessler says, “The implications are really huge, and this is the chance to make sure that our understanding of the Fourth Amendment keeps up with digital technology.”

It remains to be seen if the US Supreme Court does the right thing. In the meantime, US law enforcement agencies can still access all of this personal information on a whim. Little wonder that so many American’s are now turning to VPNs such as IPVanish, StrongVPN, and ExpressVPN to protect themselves online.

The need for a VPN won’t diminish if the Supreme Court does rule in Carpenter’s favour, but it will be a step in the right direction.

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