Although the laws governing the internet continue to resemble the Wild West, it is important for modern computer users to recognize that nearly everything that we say and do online has the potential to be monitored by the local, state and federal government. Our society is still in the process of deciding what types of online behavior and interactions are considered public and private in the eyes of the law, but some recent court decisions have set some legal precedents for how the judicial system may resolve these questions. Let’s take a look at two of the most important specific legal cases in which the courts have dealt with when and how the government can have access to a person’s private online interactions.
US v. Zeigler
In 2007, the federal courts reached a landmark decision on the how the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution applies to workplace computers. The Fourth Amendment guarantees citizens of the United States protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the courts had previously found that an employee should not expect to have the same level of privacy when it comes to most electronic communications that occur in the workplace.
In US v. Ziegler, an employer had discovered that an employee had been viewing child pornography on workplace computer and made the decision to report the crime to the FBI. The employer then agreed to release the computer to the custody of law enforcement officers who found sufficient evidence to charge Ziegler with accessing child pornography. During his trial, the defendant motioned that seizure of his workplace computer was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights and that the evidence found on his computer should not be admitted as evidence.
Interestingly, the court came to the conclusion that his workplace computer was indeed protect by the Fourth Amendment. However, the court also decided that the employer had the right to monitor his internet usage and the right to turn over evidence of his crime to the FBI at their own discretion. This set a legal precedent for the Fourth Amendment protecting an individual’s civil rights on workplace computer while allowing employers to legally consent to allowing the government to search a workplace computer if they are willing to do so.
State v. Reid
In the trial of State v. Reid, the supreme court of New Jersey came to the decision that the Fourth Amendment also protects a computer user from how their ISPs release information to the state government. In this particular case, a defendant by the name of Shirley Reid was charged with stealing a computer after she used her access to her employer’s account with a supplier to have a computer shipped to her possession. Law enforcement officials were only able to discover Reid’s identity when her internet service provider, Comcast, agreed to release the information after being served with a municipal subpoena.