Conducting Surveillance and Collecting Location Data in a Post-Carpenter World, Part I

Two years have passed since the Supreme Court held in Carpenter v. United States, 585 U.S. ___, 138 S.Ct. 2206 (2018), that the government carried out a Fourth Amendment search when it obtained historical cell site location information (CSLI) for the defendant’s phone from a wireless carrier. Relying in part on the view expressed by five concurring justices in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements, the court determined that allowing the government access to at least seven days of historical cell-site records contravenes that expectation, even when the records are generated for commercial purposes and held by a third party.

The Carpenter majority characterized its decision as “a narrow one” and noted that it was not expressing a view on “real-time CSLI or ‘tower dumps,’” disturbing the traditional application of the third-party doctrine, or “call[ing] into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras.” Id. at 2220. Dissenting justices, in contrast, characterized the court’s reasoning as “fractur[ing] two fundamental pillars of Fourth Amendment law,” and “guarantee[ing] a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely.” Id. at 2247. (Alito, J., dissenting).

Lower courts have applied and distinguished Carpenter in a number of cases involving electronic surveillance and the obtaining of location and other types of information from third parties. This post, the first in a three-part series, summarizes post-Carpenter decisions relating to surveillance by pole camera and tower dumps. The second post in this series will examine post-Carpenter rulings on the obtaining of real-time surveillance through GPS or CSLI. The third post will consider the use of cell site simulators and the obtaining of other information about a person’s on-line activities or accounts from third parties. After reading all three, you can decide for yourself whether Carpenter’s progeny has bolstered the majority’s view of its limitations or has borne out the dissent’s warnings regarding its reach.

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May Search Warrants for Cell Phones Include Connected Cloud Services?

While preparing to teach a recent class about search warrants for digital devices, I spoke with a number of experts in digital forensics. Each conversation was very helpful. Almost all of them touched on an issue I’d never previously considered: whether search warrants for cell phones do or may include the authority to search connected cloud services.

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Fourth Circuit Reverses Graham: No Warrant Required for Historical Cell Site Location Information

Last year, a panel of the Fourth Circuit decided United States v. Graham, 796 F.3d 332 (4th Cir. 2015). The panel ruled that “the government conducts a search under the Fourth Amendment when it obtains and inspects a cell phone user’s historical [cell site location information (CSLI)] for an extended period of time. . . . Its inspection by the government, therefore, requires a warrant, unless an established exception to the warrant requirement applies.” I discussed Graham here and here. Last week, the en banc Fourth Circuit reversed the panel, ruling that under the third-party doctrine, a cell phone subscriber has no reasonable expectation of privacy in historical cell site location information that he or she shares with a service provider, so it isn’t a Fourth Amendment “search” when law enforcement obtains such information, and a warrant isn’t required. The en banc opinion is here. This post discusses the opinion and considers the possibility of Supreme Court review or action by Congress.

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Fourth Circuit: Cell Site Location Information Requires a Search Warrant

The Fourth Circuit just decided United States v. Graham, an important case about law enforcement access to cell site location information (CSLI). This post summarizes the case, explains its importance for North Carolina proceedings, and puts it in context in the broader debate about this type of information.

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Important New Opinion on Cell Phone Tracking

On Tuesday, the Eleventh Circuit ruled, en banc, that law enforcement may obtain historical cell site location information without a search warrant, using a court order based on less than probable cause. There’s a controversy over what legal standard should govern law enforcement access to location information, and the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling is likely to be influential in the debate. This post explains the issue and puts the new decision in context.

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Is the DEA Using NSA Warrantless Surveillance Data in Domestic Drug Investigations?

Maybe so, according to a recent Reuters report. Apparently, the Special Operations Division of the DEA receives information from the NSA and passes it to DEA field agents. The agents then begin criminal investigations based on the information. There are two possible problems with the program described by Reuters. End run around privacy protections. First, … Read more

Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking: The Fifth Circuit Weighs In

I wrote here about how law enforcement officers may obtain historical information about the location of a suspect’s cellular phone. There have been several developments in the law since then, including earlier this week when the Fifth Circuit rendered its decision in In re Application of the United States of America for Historical Cell Site … Read more

Big News about Law Enforcement Access to Email

I’ve written about law enforcement access to electronic communications, both on this blog and, more extensively, in this Administration of Justice Bulletin. One major issue is how and when law enforcement can obtain a suspect’s email from the suspect’s email provider. There are lots of wrinkles, but broadly, there’s a federal statute called the Stored … Read more

Defense Access to Stored Electronic Communications

As I mentioned last week, I have a new publication entitled Prosecution and Law Enforcement Access to Information about Electronic Communications. It’s meant to be useful on a range of topics, from phone records and wiretapping, but the most detailed discussion concerns email, text messages, and other stored electronic communications. The very, very simplified version … Read more