Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tracking A Nation - Privacy Laws in a Digital Era


When the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Force in Washington DC found out that nightclub owner Antoine Jones had links to a drug trafficking ring they set out to get him behind bars.

They installed a camera to monitor the entrance to the club. They requested and received information from his cell phone through a trap and trace warrant. But what did him in was the installation of a
GPS on his wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. The device collected more than 2000 pages of data over 4 weeks. This data connected Jones to a house containing $850,000 in cash and 97 kilograms of cocaine.
In 2008, Jones was convicted for possessing 5 kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute and was sentenced to life in prison, Much of his case was based on evidence collected through the GPS tracker. Only thing is: the police didn’t have a valid warrant to track his car with the device.
Today the Supreme Court ruled that the police violated the 4th Amendment of the Constitution when it placed a GPS tracker onto Jones’ car. According to the 4th Amendment, people have the right to be “secure against unreasonable searches and seizures” without a warrant.

Cyberlaw geeks had anticipated this decision to be a watershed moment that could potentially determine how law enforcers and courts would handle private data that is being collected on electronic devices and even by third parties, such as cellular phone service providers. But the Supreme Court issued a very narrow ruling, saying that the physical placement of
GPS on personal property, such as Jones’ car, was the equivalent of a ‘search.’ That means we still don’t know how law enforcers and courts will handle data collected of us by devices that don’t have to be physically placed in your house or on your car.

“In cases of electronic or other novel modes of sur­veillance that do not depend upon a physical invasion on property, the majority opinion’s trespassory test may provide little guidance,” wrote Justice Sotomayor in her concurrence.

So the question still remains: what should and shouldn’t be regarded private? And what information should require the government to have a warrant and which shouldn’t? Nowadays, private companies and electronic devices collect troves of information about us that is not explicitly protected by the law: your Google search terms, the data collected via facial recognition technology and the geolocation data stored on your iPhone. None of this is really off-limits to law enforcers if you’re ‘connected’ to an investigation.
While privacy laws have undergone a number of changes in the 20th century, the laws that govern our privacy are due for a major review. Congress hasn’t set new classifications for private and public information since the Electronic Communications Privacy Act 1986, a congressional amendment to privacy laws that expanded the protection of information from phone lines, houses and documents to electronically stored data.

The rapid rate at which new technology has infiltrated our every daily conduct is outpacing the bureaucratic processes it takes to amend laws. The iPhone is barely 5 years old and has changed the way we interact with mobile devices and more importantly, what we share through them.

We’ve reached a point at which technology has outpaced the laws that protect our privacy. If that doesn’t bother us, that may underscore the problem. If it does, we need to think hard about what’s private in an age when we’re increasingly living in public.


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