App Permissions & The Third-Party Doctrine
18 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2019 Last revised: 24 Mar 2020
Date Written: September 19, 2019
Apple’s trademarked catchphrase “there’s an app for that” suggests that every app on a modern digital device is perfectly tailored to provide a specific, necessary convenience. Whether the user wants to check the weather, get updates on her favorite baseball team, find a coupon for her next purchase, or track her fitness and activity levels, she can use an app to fill gaps in her life that she may not have known existed. What the user might also not know, however, is that “permissions” either she or the phone’s operating system have granted to the app allow it to access functions and information on her device entirely unrelated to the app’s apparently straightforward purpose. The app’s developers might then package and sell information collected through those permissions to commercial partners, or, as this Article considers, divulge it to government investigators. This essay addresses a looming technological challenge to the Court’s third-party doctrine: the permissions that app developers obtain on our digital devices. Such permissions — which are either granted by the user upon installation of the app or permitted by the operating system without any user input — entitle app developers to access and send data from the device, such as the user’s location services, motion sensors, contacts, calendars, social media accounts, camera, or microphone. Carpenter contracted the third-party doctrine when government investigators collect location information emitted by a citizen’s cell phone to connect with towers in the nearby area. This Article considers what that decision portends for information government investigators might collect from a citizen’s cell phone and the apps that make it both enormously convenient and potentially intrusive upon personal privacy.
Keywords: Fourth Amendment, Privacy, Third-Party Doctrine, Apps, Permissions
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