Does A “Reasonable Expectation of Privacy” Still Exist?

Analyzing the right to privacy in the digital age

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Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Nestled on the couch, we sit with our laptops reading articles and scanning our social media accounts. Meanwhile, every site we look at and advertisement we click on becomes data that is used to track us. Still, we feel entitled to privacy, especially within our own homes and while using our personal devices.

The right to privacy was established through several amendments to the Constitution, including the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Amendments. Additionally, the Supreme Court case Katz v. United States established “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” and in the case Stanley v. Georgia, Justice Thurgood Marshall stated, “[i]f the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch. Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.” Although they refer specifically to government intrusion, these Supreme Court cases fit the narrative that people should feel safe while in their dwellings and on their devices.

As technology continues to advance, there are new threats to personal privacy and security. Some of these threats seem counterintuitive, such as when individuals purchase home security systems only to have their privacy invaded. For example, The New York Times reported in December 2019 that within a week of a family installing their Ring security camera it was hacked and a man spoke to their young daughter, calling her racial slurs. This was not an isolated instance, as the article reported similar situations around the nation.

Yet, people often voluntarily relinquish their right to privacy without even realizing their privacy and their families’ privacy can be breached. For example, investigators have used genealogy websites to track and detain suspects. Detectives located and arrested serial killer Joseph James DeAngelo, according to an article published by The Washington Post. DeAngelo’s distant relative used a DNA-based genealogy website, which allowed investigators to trace family links and eventually pinpoint DeAngelo. Although tracking down a serial killer is positive for public safety, it brings up many questions. Will this same method be used to track down criminals who commit less serious offenses? Do people know investigators can use genealogy websites in investigations? What are the ethical implications? However, many of these ancestry sites list in their terms and conditions who can view and use people’s information. Still, individuals often forfeit their right to privacy by clicking “accept” without ever reading what they are consenting to.

Furthermore, people feel nervous about their privacy while on their personal devices. An article published by The Wall Street Journal asked a hacker, Alexander Heid, to see if he could hack into cameras on laptops. Heid was able to hack into both a Windows and a Mac laptop. Although there are tactics to avoid getting hacked, such as not clicking on links in emails that are not trustworthy, small mistakes can have large consequences in terms of privacy.

Privacy in the digital age is diminishing, as people continue to arm their houses with security systems, trace their lineage, and mindlessly click on links when using personal devices. When contemplating the topic of privacy, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren explained that “the fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a greater danger to the privacy of the individual.”

References

Mark Berman, Justin Jouvenal. “Authorities Used DNA, Genealogy Website, to Track down ‘Golden State Killer’ Suspect Decades after Crimes.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Apr. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/04/26/authorities-begin-racking-up-cases-against-golden-state-killer-suspect-ex-cop-turned-mechanic/.

“Stanley v. Georgia.” www.oyez.org/cases/1968/293.

Stern, Joanna. “What I Learned From the Hacker Who Spied on Me.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 7 Feb. 2019, www.wsj.com/articles/what-i-learned-from-the-hacker-who-spied-on-me-11549559728.

Vigdor, Neil. “Somebody’s Watching: Hackers Breach Ring Home Security Cameras.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Dec. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/15/us/Hacked-ring-home-security-cameras.html.

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