Our current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is based upon what now must seem like a quaint concept - the reasonable expectation of privacy. In order to determine if police action constituted a search the court would ask whether or not the target of the action had a reasonable expectation of privacy in what they were doing.
For instance, if the target of police action was talking on a pay phone (if you've never heard nor seen such a thing, just look it up on Google), it was not considered good cricket if the police tapped that phone to listen in on the conversation. In theory a person had a reasonable expectation of privacy when standing inside a phone booth - even though the phone wasn't in their home.
The test also worked against individuals when they had no legitimate expectation of privacy. Airport security is the best example of this. If the government tells you they are going to x-ray every bag and force everyone boarding a plane to walk through a metal detector or body scanner - you can't make a claim that you had a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the gun in your bag.
But this paradigm has run aground. Justice Sotomayor wrote about it in her concurring opinion in U.S. v Jones (see "Hey kids, get out of my yard!")
With all of our new shiny gadgets how much of a reasonable expectation of privacy do we have? Our e-mails sit on a server owned by a third party. Our cell phones have GPS devices that track us whenever the phone is on. Our conversations are carried in waves from tower to tower instead of in a cable buried under the ground. When registering products or buying stuff online we voluntarily give a third party our personal information. We post our every thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.
In short, the ways in which we communicate today have rendered the reasonable expectation of privacy test moot. And, as a result, the government has upped the ante by requesting reams and reams of personal data from internet providers and web service companies as a way of getting around that pesky requirement that they get a judge to sign a warrant.
Google publishes a transparency report that lets people know just how many requests for data they have received from government entities.
It turns out that Google received over 21,000 requests from government offices and courts during the second half of 2012 - an increase of 17% over the prior year and 71% over the number of requests in the second half of 2009. The United States government made some 8,438 of those requests. These requests range from the name associated with a given user account to e-mails.
The report also lets us know how often Google has complied either fully or partially when presented with a request. In 2012 Google complied with 66% of the requests, down from 70% the previous year and from 76% back in 2010. Google provided at least some data to the US government 88% of the time - down from previous years.
I guess this is the point we have to decide whether we're glass-half-full or glass-half-empty folks. On the half-empty side, Google is turning over information about 2/3 of the time a government entity requests it - and in almost nine of every ten requests from our government. That's a lot of data being handed over to the government about what we do online.
On the half-full side, the numbers do indicate that Google isn't just handing over the keys to the server upon request. Although los federales get at least some of the info they request 88% of the time, the rest of the requests go straight into the circular file. And there is no doubt that it frustrates government officials when they can't get what they want just by flashing a card that says they work for the government.
Ultimately we are going to have to redefine what "persons, houses, papers and effects" means as well as just what it means to "search or seize" something. Back in the day we used to write letters and drop them in a blue box with a stamp on them. Someone would then deliver those letters to people in other cities and states. Now we just type our messages on a computer and push the send button. Is there really a difference? Does it really matter whether the message is written on paper and placed in a sealed envelope or sent through the aether of cyberspace? We used to talk on corded telephones that required someone to attach a mechanical device if they wanted to listen in on our conversation. Now we talk on cell phones that record our location and send our voices through space. Is there really a difference between the two?
Justice Sotomayor is correct that we need to rethink our paradigm when it comes to search and seizure law. But maybe, just maybe, the answer is to look back to the actual words on the page and decide just what "persons, houses, papers and effects" means. Instead of creating balancing tests and checklists and looking for any excuse to create an exception to the written words, maybe we need to look to the words themselves.
Instead of looking at it from the perspective that everything must be reasonable unless..., maybe we should look at from the perspective that everything must be unreasonable unless...