Fourteen of the biggest US tech companies filed a brief with the Supreme Court on Monday supporting more rigorous warrant requirements for law enforcement seeking certain cell phone data, such as location information. In the statement, the signatories—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft among them—argue that the government leans on outdated laws from the 1970s to justify Fourth Amendment overreach. One perhaps surprising voice in the chorus of protesters? Verizon.
Verizon's support means that the largest wireless service provider in the US, and a powerful force in Silicon Valley, has bucked a longtime trend of telecom acquiescence. While carriers have generally been willing to comply with a broad range of government requests—even building out extensive infrastructure to aid surveillance—Verizon has this time joined with academics, analysts, and the company's more privacy-focused corporate peers.
Carpenter v. United States is "one of the most important Fourth Amendment cases in recent memory," Craig Silliman, Verizon's executive vice president for public policy and general counsel, wrote on Monday. "Although the specific issue presented to the Court is about location information, the case presents a broader issue about a customer's reasonable expectation of privacy for other types of sensitive data she shares with any third party.… Our hope is that when it decides this case, the Court will help us better apply old Fourth Amendment doctrines to an evolving digital era."
From the early days of landlines, telecoms have complied with law enforcement requests for customer data such as call length, location, and who has called whom. As the variety of data customers generate has exponentially expanded and evolved, so has this information gathering by government officials, often under a general mandate and without a case-specific warrant. For its part, Verizon cooperated with the National Security Agency as part of broad bulk surveillance programs for years. Details of this coordination was revealed in NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, but some aspects of it had been publicly debated for years prior.