If you think that without a warrant police cannot keep an eye on you, you are sadly mistaken. It is an open secret that the threat to right to privacy of individuals, especially in America, looms large due to government surveillance.
How Police Spies on You Without a Warrant?
Let us see how:
#1 Accessing emails
You may think that your emails are secure in your inbox, but police have ways and means to access your inbox and fish out the information required. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA) empowers the police to access stored emails in the cloud that are at least 180 days old.
This infringement of privacy under EPCA has been criticized by privacy activists, legal experts and even companies. They contend that this Act, passed in 1986, is antiquated in digital terms, since at that time there is no widespread use of email, social media, digital photography and the like. They demand a major overhaul of this Act, which has not borne any fruit till date.
However, on a positive note, the US House of Representatives passed the Email Privacy Act in April 2016 that will update EPCA and restrain the police from gaining access to emails and other personal communications without a search warrant. So far, the Senate has stalled this Act.
#2 Social media accounts
If your social media account is public, it is accessible to all. However, if it is private, then only you have the right to it. The social media service is the one to dictate what information is it willing to give up. Social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, do provide their user’s profile that only includes his or her name, email and IP address. For the rest, the police have to go through the legal process.
So, how do law officers get access to your private information? They utilize a social network surveillance software, offered by Geofeedia and SnapTrends. These firms provide the police with keyword and hashtag monitoring. This software is also capable of circumventing your privacy settings.
#3 Phone calls
Tapping phone calls is an age-old process of gaining information by the police. The police have started using sophisticated equipment to access your phone. Although it is illegal for police to eavesdrop on phone calls without a warrant, they have found a way around it.
They quote the Supreme Court case from 1979, that allows the police to obtain records of who you called and when you called, since these call logs are classified as business records and not protected by the Fourth Amendment. To get this, the police needs to obtain a subpoena from the court and present it to the cellular provider.
#4 Text messages
EPCA places text messages at par with emails. The police do not require a warrant for the text message content stored by the service provider that is less than 180 days old, not older. However, the police need search warrant or your consent for text messages that are 180 days old or later.
#5 IP address
Obtaining IP addresses is akin to getting phone records and it entails an officer to prove that these are needed for an ongoing investigation. However, police generally obtain an administrative subpoena for obtaining historical records. Obtaining IP address has limited use for the police and that is to locate the suspect or the location of the crime.
When you visit different websites, you leave your IP address, this helps in getting your general location. However, in the light of a 2007 case, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has made tracking of IP addresses synonymous with telephone numbers.
Your location is easily identified through cell towers and GPS features in your smartphone. Some courts even allow the law enforcement agencies to obtain your location history from the phone company without a warrant or subpoena. However, other courts uphold that this act violates the citizens’ constitutional rights. In this case, it is almost impossible for the police to obtain the location information without a warrant.
The tussle between the law enforcement agencies and citizens for obtaining the latter’s personal information will continue and both have their reasons. However, it is up to the judiciary to decided how much privacy it grants to the citizens.