How a Radio Shack Robbery Could Spur a New Era in Digital Privacy

The case that could transform privacy law in the digital era began with the armed robbery of a Radio Shack store in Detroit, a couple of weeks before Christmas in 2010. In the next three months, eight more stores in Michigan and Ohio were robbed at gunpoint.

The robbers took bags filled with smartphones. Their phones would help send them to prison.

This past week, the Supreme Court considered whether prosecutors violated the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches, by collecting vast amounts of data from cellphone companies showing the movements of the man they say organized most of the robberies.

Experts in privacy law state the case, Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402, is a potential blockbuster.

The court’s decision, expected by June, will apply the Fourth Amendment, drafted in the 18th century, to a world in which people’s movements are continuously recorded by devices in their cars, pockets, and purses, by toll plazas and by transit systems. The court’s reasoning may also apply to email and text messages, internet searches, and bank and credit card records.

The case concerns Timothy Ivory Carpenter, who witnesses said had planned the robberies, supplied guns and served as a lookout, typically waiting in a stolen car across the street. “At his signal, the robbers entered the store, brandished their guns, herded customers and employees to the back, and ordered the employees to fill the robbers’ bags with new smartphones,” a court decision said, summarizing the evidence against him.

In addition to presenting testimony, prosecutors relied on months of records obtained from cellphone companies to prove their case. The documents showed that Mr. Carpenter’s phone had been nearby when several of the robberies happened. He was convicted and sentenced to 116 years in prison.

“If the court squarely recognizes what it’s been suggesting in recent cases, namely that we do have an expectation of privacy in our digital data and public movements and that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from tracking us door to door for weeks in public, that would be an occasion for dancing in the streets,” he said. “If the court holds that we don’t have an expectation of privacy in public except when there is some sort of physical trespass involved, that could be a huge setback for privacy.”


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