by Anupam Chander, Director of the California International Law Center and Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce, published by Yale University Press.
*This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium examining proposed reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).
My parents grew up in a pen and paper world, where most of their writings and records were kept at home, in their offices, or with close confidantes. I grew up in a world of computers, but even my writings were mostly kept at home on hard drives and floppy disks (for today’s students, many of whom have never seen a floppy disk, a history of the floppy disk). My first writings were kept, astonishingly, on a cassette recorder, which stored what I typed on my TRS-80, a computer made by Radio Shack. That computer had a total memory of 16K, roughly 16,000 characters (not even words) of text.
My children are growing up in the cloud, where their writings and their records are being stored in remote computers. Because those computers are managed by Dropbox, Google, Microsoft, and their peers, their writings are far more secure than I ever managed when I stored my files on a floppy or a hard drive, both of which failed with remarkable regularity and maximally devastating timing.
But even if our kids never know the pain of losing a week’s work to faulty computing or an accidental deletion, they face a world where their writings are far more subject to government scrutiny than mine ever were. Not only are their writings subject to government searches, but also their whereabouts, through the tracking of smartphones. This is because while the Fourth Amendment clearly protects homes from searches and seizures without a warrant, it is not so clear that it protects writings and the records about us stored on a remote computer.
Do our children deserve less protection from government snooping because they are relying on cloud services? Right now, the law says that if the government wants to read what’s on my home computer, it has to get a warrant to do so. But if the government wants to read what our kids are storing privately online, they may not. (For a more detailed account of when the government can access information online without a warrant, see this ProPublica summary, updated as of June 2014, but not including Riley v. California, described below.)