Carpenter v. U.S. – Implications For Smart Cities

time lapse photography of city road at nighttime

Photo by zhang kaiyv on

The Supreme Court’s decision on the privacy of cell phone records in Carpenter v. United States, and the need for law enforcement to obtain a warrant, could have implications for the future of smart, connected cities.

The smart building of the future contains a variety of sensors, from heat and motion sensors that detect how many people are in a room, to metal detectors for hotels.  Outside of the building, cities are putting sensors in the street for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), which will connect vehicles to infrastructure to avoid accidents (and more).  These are just a few of the connected environment sensors that is part of our near future.  IoT devices already outnumber the world’s population.  Here’s a nice presentation from Bosch on just some of what a connected city will enable.

These smart city/smart building technologies will be tied back to databases which represent a treasure trove of information for city/building planners, energy providers and…….. law enforcement.

Where does this data reside?  Does it reside with the municipality (for DSCR, traffic cameras, etc.), with the building owner, or with Google (who has your mapping information)?  Can a third party purchase that information from the municipality for data analytics (perhaps Facebook)?  Can law enforcement access this information, and under what non-emergency conditions?  If law enforcement is provided such access, how do we ensure the chain of custody of that data?

Should a building owner be required to provide building information, and if the owner does so without a warrant, should the building owner be required to provide you with affirmative notice when you enter?  Can you opt-out of providing this information to the building owner?

These questions have consequences for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).  FirstNet is designed to be a nationwide broadband system for police and fire fighters.  One of the most powerful uses of the network is to give first responders the ability to harness the power of IoT in order to enable better information upon which to act in emergencies.  For example, access to internal video cameras at the Washington Navy Yard would have enabled police on the outside of the building to know the location and number of shooter(s) inside the building during the incident in 2013.  If the building was a private facility, instead of a government facility, does accessing inside building IoT represent a unreasonable search and seizure?

As a participant in the Telecommunications Industries Association’s (TIA) Smart Buildings Program, I see opportunities to create simply amazing technologically advanced buildings that resemble the best of Star Trek.

I do not suggest or recommend any answers to these questions here.  However, it is a conversation that must be had as a society, and considered prior to the issue arising in a litigation context.  Part of that discussion will be shaped by the Carpenter decision, which certainly would seem to suggest that access to many of the potential data users discussed above will require a warrant.

Connectivity and analytics of shared information is an important part of creating a more efficient future and limiting the use of our planet’s scarce natural resources, with the hope of making a better world for all.  How that future isn’t considered to be a “Big Brother” future is a conversation to have now.

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