Balancing Consumer Privacy And Public Safety

In a recent article, it was stated that “Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made more than 1.3 million requests [to cellphone carriers] for consumers’ cellphone records in 2011,” which was a huge surge from previous years. The requests required “customers’ locations, text messages, and call details, frequently without warrants,” which forced carriers to create detailed guidelines of what information could be provided – and for what price.

It’s evident that there is a gray area of what defines public and private information as it pertains to today’s technologies, further complicating what is considered reasonable and unreasonable searches and seizures.

In a recent article, it was stated that “Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made more than 1.3 million requests [to cellphone carriers] for consumers’ cellphone records in 2011,” which was a huge surge from previous years. The requests required “customers’ locations, text messages, and call details, frequently without warrants,” which forced certain carriers to create detailed guidelines of what information could be provided – and for what price.

This is a little unfair to the consumers. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am torn between the balance of consumer privacy and public safety.

The fourth amendment of the United States constitution states:

“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.”

In 2011, New York Times published an article “1986 Privacy Law is Outrun by the Web,” highlighting that:

“The Justice Department argued in court that cellphone users had given up the expectation of privacy about their location by voluntarily giving that information to carriers. In April, it argued in a federal court in Colorado that it ought to have access to some e-mails without a search warrant. And federal law enforcement officials, citing technology advances, plan to ask for new regulations that would smooth their ability to perform legal wiretaps of various Internet communications.”

It’s evident that there is a gray area of what defines public and private information as it pertains to today’s technologies, further complicating what are considered reasonable searches and seizures.

With Facebook and Twitter, users have the freedom to broadcast their entire life stories to billions of viewers, but what if they talk about another individual in a negative or somewhat threatening way? We have all verbalized how we could "kill" someone when frustrated, but once that is verbalized in a text, it becomes an entirely different issue: Unlawful use of a computer/mobile phone.  Social networking gossip is a lot different than watercooler gossip because it eliminates any chances for deniability, giving law enforcement a free pass to issue a warning or make an arrest; or an angry employer grounds for termination.

What about “exigent circumstances” that would cause a “reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm?” Such circumstances would include murder, bank robbery, gang activity, fraud, sexual exploitation of children, and kidnapping. Almost every mobile device has GPS capabilities to help consumers travel from place to place, and I know I would appreciate the feature more if it helped policemen rescue me from a crazed psychopath that kidnapped me during one of my nightly visits to the store. 

But what about the individuals who want to be lost, or those who are venting amongst friends? Should their privacy be violated simply because public and private information is unclear as they pertain to digital technologies?

I think it is time to modify the 4th amendment so that it can adapt with the changes of technology when they occur. Private and public information, as they apply to social networking sites and mobile devices, need to be redefined, so the guidelines and standards can be more comprehensive, and innocent consumers can avoid unnecessary exposure.

While certain information is beneficial for law enforcement and government agencies solving crimes, it can also be harmful to the innocent who got caught using poor diction on their personal pages.

What are your thoughts? Should the 4th amendment be reconsidered? What constitutes private and public information? Comment below, or send your thoughts to meaghan.ziemba@advantagemedia.com.

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