Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court is soliciting amicus briefs from interested parties in two cases highly relevant to electronic privacy.
First up is Commonwealth vs. Shabazz Augustine, where they seek to establish:
“whether there is a warrant requirement for cell phone records collected and held by the phone company, namely historic cell site location information, sought by police to establish a person’s location at various times.”
The case is attracting heavyweight legal attention from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who have already filed an amicus brief, assisted by local information activist, Harvard legal scholar and all-around side-of-the-angels guy Kit Walsh. It will most likely be argued on October 10.
The question underlying the case is whether we all have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our movements as recorded by a third party. In the context of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, this depends on whether the person moving can be said to have abandoned all proprietary interest in the record of their movements that is held by their cell phone company. Supreme Court precedents from the 1980s indicate that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy in this kind of telephonic “metadata”, but those rulings look increasingly out of date in a technological context where cellphone metadata can reveal a great deal more about you than the metadata associated with a 1980s landline could. EFF’s amicus brief reports that the lower court ruled that cellphone subscribers cannot be said to have “voluntarily conveyed” their interest in data on their movements to a third party simply because that party holds the data, and asks the SJC to let that part of the lower court ruling stand.
As is the case with the Supreme Court, it is worrying that the Supreme Judicial Court has accepted the case for review. The best outcome for defenders of digital privacy would have been for it to allow the lower court ruling to stand, and their acceptance indicates a significant risk of its being overturned. We urge the Supreme Judicial Court to heed the arguments of EFF’s amicus brief, and to err, if they err, on the side of liberty.