ISSUES

The Fourth Amendment: Your Privacy in the Digital Age

Here are three crucial ways the digital age complicates your protections under the Fourth Amendment.

When the Fourth Amendment codified citizens' protections against government spying in 1791, Americans couldn't say, "Alexa: turn off the lights." With technology pervasively conducting our daily errands, the amendment against illegal search and seizure is not equipped to protect digital users. In fact, David Cole, a law professor of constitutional law and national security at Georgetown University, critiques, "In the modern digital age, it means very, very little."

To be clear, the totality of the Fourth Amendment reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Here are three crucial ways the digital age complicates your protections under the Fourth Amendment:

1. Law enforcement doesn't always require a search warrant to enter your home

When police want to mine your private information on suspicion that you've committed a crime, they have to meet the familiar requirement of "probable cause." Traditionally, they must convince a judge that there is a sound reason to search and/or bug your property for surveillance. True to the wording of the law, your protected personal belongings include your physical body, "houses, papers, and effects."

However, "probable cause" includes the "plain view" clause, wherein authorities have the right to enter your home if they see evidence, contraband, or suspicious materials in your home. In the age of social media, a picture, check-in, or status you post could very well justify law enforcement entering your home without a warrant. The ruling in Katz v. United States stands as the most notable example that qualifies the Fourth Amendment as only applying to situations in which "an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy." When you're sharing the details of your life on social media sites, you waive much of that expectation.

2. Your personal information is no longer "private" from the government once shared on social media

A series of rulings in the 1960s and 1970s began to add exceptions to the "probable cause" requirement. Namely, the government does not need a search warrant to obtain any personal information that you've already shared with somebody else. Hence, the government can obtain any private information given to credit card companies, banks, or phone companies, because you've technically de-privatized the information by using those services.

Of course the same applies to any and all social media accounts. All the government needs is a subpoena, which experts say is "trivially easy to issue."

3. Your location can be tracked by the government

While it may seem obvious to be wary of broadcasting your location at any given time, some personal devices and social media sites automatically tag and record your location. Your whereabouts cease to be a topic of government surveillance when you share the information willingly (which you do by using digital services). As Justice Alito noted when presiding over the United States v. Jones, social media tools "will . . . shape the average person's expectations about the privacy of his or her daily movements." Traditional protections simply don't apply to what you publicize yourself.

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