Verizon, Yes, Verizon. Just Stood up for your privacy.


By battling against collecting warrantless information about location, Verizon bucks a trend of cooperation between telecom companies and federal authorities.

The top fifteen US tech firms filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Monday supporting more stringent warrants for law enforcement agencies seeking specific information from cell phones, including location data. In the document they signed, the signatories –Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft among them — argue that the government relies on outdated laws dating back to the 70s as a reason for Fourth Amendment overreach. One voice that might be surprising in the crowd of protesters? Verizon.

Verizon’s backing is a sign that the US’s most powerful network of wireless providers and a significant influence in Silicon Valley has bucked the long-running trend of telecoms acquiescing. 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 joined with academics, analysts, and the company’s more privacy-focused corporate peers.

Carpenter v. United States is “one of the most significant Fourth Amendment cases in recent time,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s executive vice president of general counsel and public policy, posted on Monday. “Although the particular issue that was brought before the Court concerns location information but the case also raises the issue of the right to privacy when it comes to different types of data that she gives to any third party. …. We hope that when the Court decides on this case, the Court will allow us to better apply the Fourth Amendment doctrines to an ever-changing digital age.”

Since the beginning of landlines, telecoms have been able to comply with requests from law enforcement agencies for information about customers, like call duration along with the location and who has contacted who. As the range of data generated by customers has exponentially increased and evolved, so has the collection of this data by government officials, typically in the context of a general mandate but without a specific warrant for the case. In its way, Verizon cooperated with the National Security Agency as part of large-scale surveillance programs for several years. The details of this cooperation were disclosed in NSA documents leaked through Edward Snowden in 2013. However, some of the pieces were discussed in public for a long time before that.

Carpenter in v. United States, which the Supreme Court will hear this autumn, concerns the obtaining, without a warrant, several months of individual locations by law enforcement officers in 2011. Officials reviewed 12,898 location records that spanned four months for one of the persons, Timothy Carpenter, to establish their case. Carpenter was ultimately found guilty. The appeal claims that location data collected by law enforcement agencies without warrants violates Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment rights–and Verizon agrees.

“Verizon is notable because they have the kind of records on the location specifically in dispute,” says Nathan Freed Wessler. He is a lawyer on the American Civil Liberties Union staff, representing Carpenter. “The communications companies are known for their long tradition generally of cooperating with the demands of law enforcement agencies for surveillance; however, I believe that Verizon’s involvement is a sign of a growing awareness about the significance of fighting for the privacy rights of customers.”

The general public is becoming more conscious of the risks to privacy when they give their personal information to corporations. A firm policy protecting data has proven to be a blessing for companies like Apple. This financial incentive could be even more significant for the various telecoms that blur the lines between traditional utility and technology businesses today. Verizon, for instance, is now the owner of Yahoo and AOL, as well as its position as one of the top four wireless service providers across the US.

“At time’s end, even a business like Verizon will not make a fuss in the absence of believing that it has a business reason as well as it being the proper thing to do,” Wessler says.

Verizon has been working based on making this change for months. Silliman published a public statement in the past year about possible Fourth Amendment concerns when telecoms cooperate with warrantless requests from law enforcement officials for data. Silliman’s stance won’t inspire others to follow suit–no other telecoms have joined in this particular case–but it’s still a significant turning point in the conversation among privacy-minded advocates and the monolithic telecoms. In Carpenter against. United States, it’s just one voice that is important in the broader debate about data privacy.

“The other tech firms offer the idea of the case about our email and smart devices as well as all types of cloud-stored information that we generate throughout our lives today,” Wessler says. “The Justices shouldn’t believe they could attempt to limit the application of these outdated cases from the 1970s to this case. The implications are enormous, and this is the opportunity to ensure that our knowledge regarding the Fourth Amendment keeps up with technological advancements.”


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