Your Rights To Privacy When Using Technology Are A Huge Unknown

girl on mobile phone

Photo: Mike Burns/Flickr

As the Senate debates this week whether police need a warrant to search your email, the national spotlight has swung to the disorganized way courts across the country handle your rights when it comes to technology.Last week a federal court in Pittsburgh ruled you don’t have any expectation of privacy if you’re stealing someone else’s Internet.

But what about privacy in regards to mobile phones?

While mobile phone carriers seem to have no problem giving up information on subscribers’ text messages and other data — carriers said they responded in 2011 to 1.3 million demands for information from law enforcement — the courts remain divided about whether cops can actually access your phone without a warrant, The New York Times reported Sunday.

A judge in Rhode Island recently threw out mobile phone evidence linking a man to a child’s murder since the police didn’t have a warrant for the records. But a federal appeals court in Louisiana is debating whether smartphone records belong to the user, and thus deserve protection, or belong to the phone company.

Courts in Ohio have ruled police need warrants to search mobile phones but California’s highest court has said cops can search a suspect’s phone at the time of arrest without a warrant, according to the Times.

“The courts are all over the place,” Hanni Fakhoury, a criminal lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Times. “They can’t even agree if there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages that would trigger Fourth Amendment protection.”

But while courts debate mobile phone data, the Pittsburgh ruling about Internet privacy is ironclad.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti ruled Internet subscribers, especially those stealing Internet, do “not have an expectation of privacy in that connection.”

But that raises the question, if it’s so clear Internet usage isn’t protected, why are mobile phones any different?

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An internet subscriber does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his IP address or the information he provides to his Internet Service Provider, such as Comcast, in order to legally establish an internet connection, and likewise, a person connecting to another person’s wireless router does not have an expectation of privacy in that connection,” U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti said of the Pittsburgh case.

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