Ahead of a controversial Senate debate on digital privacy this week, the battle over warrantless cell-phone and Internet searches is beginning to take shape — even as law-enforcement agencies continue to carry out the searches anyway. Judges across the country have thrown out cases that used tracked digital American lives without warrants, but others haven't, reports The New York Times's Somini Sengupta. A DC court, for example, compared text messages to voicemail messages, which because they can be overheard are not protected by state privacy laws, argued one judge. A Louisiana court is deciding if cell-phone records are like business records. Another court ruled that GPS cell phone tracking without a warrant was fine, too. Others, however, argue that cell phones are more than just a paper trail. One judge called cell phones "raw, unvarnished and immediate, revealing the most intimate of thoughts and emotions," as in something that is subject to higher privacy standards. Meanwhile, we see the same inconsistencies with Internet protections, reports The Wall Street Journal's Joe Pallazolo. A federal court recently ruled that people who use their neighbors' WiFi without permission forfeit privacy, opening up government officials to warrantless searches. The same ruling other courts have made for IP addresses. However, the law isn't that clear-cut, either, argues George Washington University professor Oren Kerr.
Without clear rules, government agencies have continued investigations with warrantless searches. As people have started using cell phones more often and for more than just calling, law enforcement agency requests for cell-phone information have increased, reported The New York Times's Eric Lichtblau earlier this year. AT&T gets more than 700 requests a day from various agencies, triple what it got in 2007, he notes. Last year, the total number of requests came in at at least 1.3 million. At the same time, the application for wiretapping warrants declined 14 percent last year to 2,732, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. A curious pattern considering the requests for information have gone up. Though these wireless carriers say they require a search warrant, a court order or a formal subpoena to release information, "in cases that law enforcement officials deem an emergency, a less formal request is often enough," writes Lichtblau. Or, it's possible that law enforcement has opted for other forms of tracking that don't require warrants, at least not according to some judges.
A Senate debate beginning Thursday to make changes on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act might bring some clarity to these issues. However, it's unclear if the revised bill will give the government more or less power, and it doesn't sound like the vote will apply to all cell phone or Internet data. An early draft of the bill reportedly allowed warrantless e-mail searches, reported CNET's Declan McCullagh. Since, Senator Patrick Leahy, who is spearheading the bill, has denied that the updates to the regulation will do that, however. Instead, the revised bill will require search warrants to get into email no matter how old, says Sengupta. That should presumably apply to some of our smartphone and Internet data, too. But it doesn't address text messages or location information, other concerns of consumers.