Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Privacy of Electronic Communications?

With oral argument in City of Ontario v. Quon in the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, the implications of the 4th Amendment in the digital age has been a widely discussed topic in the blawgosphere lately. 
For me, I've been more focused on the way in which the Quon decision will affect the military, if at all. 

Currently, the privacy of government computer information and government e-mail messages is a fluid notion.  The general rule for the military is that users of government computers do not enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in anything related to that computer.  The military requires that all users sign a detailed information letter which explains that their computer and e-mail may be searched at any time and for any reason, and that the user may be subject to disciplinary action for what is found.  Further, every time a user logs-on to a military copmuter, a banner explaining the lack of privacy is boldly displayed on the screen, requiring the user to hit "enter" before they may gain access (not that anyone actually reads such boiler-plate messages when they log-on, but it's there anyway).

Complications have arisen in the past, however, because military commands engaged in practices which created a reasonable expectation of privacy (at least a subjective one) by adopting unwritten policies requiring search authorizations (warrants) before searching the contents of any computer.  Further, some commands, those on ships in particular, do not have access to civilian compters for their troops and thus, troops must use their government computer to contact family, perform online banking, etc.  Of course, we would hope that our troops would not be engaging in illegal activity while on ship, but in the military, even adultery is a chargeable offense. 

Enter the Quon case.  Quon fell victim to a system which was similar to the military system.  He was issued a texting pager and told (officially) that the pager was not for personal use. He was then, however, issued a limited exception to the general rule by his immediate supervisor, allowing him to send limited personal messages so long as he paid for the overages.  Resonable expectation of privacy?  (Members of the military do not pay for any of thier computer use, so the analysis differs a bit, but Quon could still be instructive.)

Hopefully, our learned Supreme Court will craft a workable rule for such a nuanced and progressive area of consitutional law.  But then again, maybe not:
“I just don’t know how you tell what is reasonable,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said. “I suspect it might change with how old people are and how comfortable they are with the technology.”
Either way, I eagerly and anxiously await the Court's opinion.