As the country’s new Congress settles into its term, several technology issues are coming to the forefront. A number of Senators recently questioned the Department of Justice over how it is collecting cellphone-location data in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Carpenter decision. Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018). The House of Representatives is considering a renewed version of legislation that would strengthen the security of “Internet of Things” technologies used by the federal government. And politicians and pundits throughout Capitol Hill are asking whether this will be the year that comprehensive federal privacy legislation becomes law. As it turns out though, some of the nation’s top courts are already tackling these tough issues. In fact, the Seventh Circuit’s opinion last year in Naperville Smart Meter Awareness v. City of Naperville, 900 F.3d 521 (7th Cir. 2018), has received relatively little reporting, but its impact will be broad when it comes to how courts interpret the Fourth Amendment in the era of big data.
In Naperville, the Seventh Circuit heard an appeal concerning the city’s “smart meter” program. Without residents’ permission, Naperville had been replacing traditional energy meters on its grid with “smart meters” for homes. Each smart meter collected thousands of readings a month, as opposed to just the previous single monthly readings. According to the plaintiffs, the repeated readings of the smart meters collected data at such a granular level that they revealed what appliances were present in homes and when they were used. Considering the potential privacy impact, the Seventh Circuit found that Naperville’s collection of smart meter data from residents’ homes constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.