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The Fourth Amendment and the Surveillance State

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I have some follow-up thoughts to the GPS surveillance decision handed down by the Supreme Court earlier this week. The first major takeaway from the case is that Sonia Sotomayor was one of the best decisions Obama has made so far:

The split on the Court Monday, in essence, focused on which of these strands of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to emphasize. The most interesting opinion in the case, however, is Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s concurrence. Although I’m a little puzzled as to why she joined Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion—which seems to give less attention to her fundamental concerns—her own analysis is brilliant, forcefully arguing that the Court needs to rethink its Fourth Amendment jurisprudence in light of the Internet/wireless communication age. The “expectation of privacy” standard will not provide adequate protection if the increased potential power of the state is not taken into account. Sotomayor is correct, first of all, to argue, that “it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties.” And she is extremely persuasive in her argument about why the judiciary needs to check the use of GPS technology:

“Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms. And the Government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse. The net result is that GPS monitoring—by making available at a relatively low cost such a substantial quantum of intimate information about any person whom the Government, in its unfettered discretion, chooses to track—may ‘alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society.’ […] I would take these attributes of GPS monitoring into account when considering the existence of a reasonable societal expectation of privacy in the sum of one’s public movements. … I would also consider the appropriateness of entrusting to the Executive, in the absence of any oversight from a coordinate branch, a tool so amenable to misuse, especially in light of the Fourth Amendment’s goal to curb arbitrary exercises of police power to and prevent ‘a too permeating police surveillance.'”

Every point here is crucial, and her argument about the danger of information in the hands of third parties is particularly important.

Alas, Sotomayor spoke only for herself, so I have another piece about how to the extent that this is a victory, it’s a minor one. Normally, in a civil liberties case you’d take any vaguely acceptable opinion from Scalia and (especially) Alito and run, and neither of their conflicting opinions forecloses the development of a Fourth Amendment doctrine properly adapted to new technological powers. But the Court stopped short of even holding that this search violates the Constitution, and one can easily see either standard evolving in a way that gives the state extremely broad latitude. Thinking along the lines expressed in Sotomayor’s concurrence is desperately necessary.

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