A byproduct of life in the 21st Century is that many of the perks of a post-centennial lifestyle require the abdication of a fair bit of privacy to cyberspace. That means that the paper records that once required a search warrant to read (and maybe the forceful extraction from your cold-dead-hands), are now in the possession of companies who don't. Of course there's Facebook and Twitter. Those didn't exist in the 20th. Century. But, what about your phone records and email? While your phone company has long been subject to a warrant or subpoena, in the 21st. Century new "self-service" tools have been developed to help telcos manage the onslaught of requests made particularly attractive by the fact that most of us carry what amounts to a homing-beacon in our pockets. Similarly, while email has always been an attractive source of discovery, until recently most of it resided on each correspondent's physical, and virtual, desktop waiting to get written-over by something more current. Today, it's more likely been put out to pasture in a seemingly-endless "server farm", waiting to be picked by a custodian of records.
Even our personal computers, which have always required a search warrant, and often require a cascading series of search warrants covering various regions of storage space and categories of searches, are rapidly being replaced by windows to the web -- sleek sheets of glass and sculpted-aluminum that act as a portal to your virtual existence. Like a supermodel, these tablets are thin and beautiful, but two-dimensional, with very little substance inside. What makes these devices a reality today is a combination of near-ubiquitous Internet connectivity and access to your personal online data once it's established. Even the notion of "backing up" is becoming a thing of the past, because the data you see, isn't really here. It's somewhere else, presumably safe from destruction, but not necessarily from dissemination. Like many things in life, it's a trade-off.
But, not when it comes to fighting crime. The shift of discovery from physical space to cyberspace is a decided advantage for law enforcement. In fact, Google reports that it responded to more than 4200 discovery requests in the first-half of 2010 alone. One of the reasons these requests have become so popular is that online data is easier seize than a laptop, and often much more useful. Much of what can be had requires no search warrant at all, and thanks to online tools, can be had without even so much as contacting the service provider. Why? Because, unlike the data on your hard drive, you don't necessarily own your data when it's stored in cyberspace.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was enacted by Congress in 1986 -- long before most people had access to the Internet, email, or a cellphone. When Mark Zuckerberg's only friends were his stuffed animals. Mind you, it was revolutionary for it's time -- enacted to extend government restrictions on wire taps from telephone calls to also include transmissions of electronic data by computer. But, it doesn't address current evolution. Today, far more can be gleaned from a historical records search than any telephone wiretap. Perhaps that's why last year the Department of Justice argued in favor of warantless email searches. Or why in the same year the DOJ argued that cellphone users had abdicated any expectation of privacy by using a service that stores location data.
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