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Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech giants tell the Supreme Court to protect cellphone data in a key, upcoming case

A collection of the country’s largest tech companies — including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Snap — urged the Supreme Court this week to set new limits on the ways law enforcement can obtain a suspect’s smartphone location data.

The case before the nation’s justices is Carpenter vs. United States, and it stems from a 2011 investigation into a series of robberies in Detroit. As part of the probe, law enforcement officials obtained information from nearby cell towers to determine the whereabouts of one of the suspects, Timothy Carpenter, without first obtaining a warrant.

As the Supreme Court considers the matter — including questions as to whether law enforcement must demonstrate probable cause before it can seek that location data — tech giants stressed in a new amicus brief that they “do not take a position on the outcome of this case.”

But the major players that signed it — including Airbnb, Cisco, Dropbox and Verizon, the only telecom giant to sign — do argue the need for greater Fourth Amendment safeguards “to ensure that the law realistically engages with Internet-based technologies and with people’s expectations of privacy in their digital data.”

In many cases, those companies said, most Americans presume such requests from law enforcement already require a warrant.

“No constitutional doctrine should presume that consumers assume the risk of warrantless government surveillance simply by using technologies that are beneficial and increasingly integrated into modern life,” they added in the filing with the Supreme Court.

(Of course, there’s this one small caveat: “Because the data that is transmitted can reveal a wealth of detail about people’s personal lives, however, users of digital technologies reasonably expect to retain significant privacy in that data, notwithstanding that technology companies may use or share the data in various ways to provide and improve their services for their customers.” Emphasis mine.)

The justices are slated to hear the case this fall.


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