The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has recently decided in United States v. Skinner that police does not need a warrant to obtain GPS location data for mobile phones. The decision, based on the holding of the Supreme Court in US v. Jones, highlights the need for a comprehensive reform of rules on government access to communications non-contents information (“communications data”). Once consisting of only a list of phone numbers dialed by a customer (a “pen register”), communications data have become rife with personal information, including location, clickstream, social contacts and more.
To a non-American, the US v. Jones ruling is truly astounding in its narrow scope. Clearly, the Justices aimed to sidestep the obvious question of expectation of privacy in public spaces. The Court did hold that the attachment of a GPS tracking device to a vehicle and its use to monitor the vehicle’s movements constitutes a Fourth Amendment “search”. But it based its holding not on the persistent surveillance of the suspect’s movements but rather on a “trespass to chattels” inflicted when a government agent ever-so-slightly touched the suspect’s vehicle to attach the tracking device. In the opinion of the Court, it was the clearly insignificant “occupation of property” (touching a car!) rather than the obviously weighty location tracking that triggered constitutional protection.
Suffice it to say, that to an outside observer, the property infringement appears to have been a side issue in both Jones and Skinner. The main issue of course is government power to remotely access information about an individual’s life, which is increasingly stored by third parties in the cloud. In most cases past – and certainly present and future – there is little need to trespass on an individual’s property in order to monitor her every move. Our lives are increasingly mediated by technology. Numerous third parties possess volumes of information about our finances, health, online endeavors, geographical movements, etc. For effective surveillance, the government typically just needs to ask.
This is why an upcoming issue of International Data Privacy Law (IDPL) (an Oxford University Press law journal), which is devoted to systematic government access to private sector data, is so timely and important. The special issue covers rules on government access in multiple jurisdictions, including the US, UK, Germany, Israel, Japan, China, India, Australia and Canada.