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Utah bans warrantless searches of your digital data

With Utah’s example the hope is that other states will follow this path.

Starting from May, all “electronic communication” and “remote computing” services will be legally protected under the 4th amendment in Utah.

According to Utah’s vote in favor of the Electronic Information or Data Privacy Act (HB 57), authorities will be able to access user stored data such as text, images, and audio, only when the court issues a warrant under ‘reasonable circumstances’. In the case of executable warrants, the owners of such data will be informed with a 14-day notice that they have been investigated. With the exception made for the situations in which there is an “imminent risk”, or violations of the basic human rights.

Utah’s act is an important step towards improving data access legislation. The late 70s the United States v. Miller and Smith v. Maryland cases saw two decisions issued by the Supreme Court that set the ground for the third-party doctrine: “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” To put it simple everything we voluntarily hand to third parties is not private and can be searched by the Government.

Ever since then, a loophole opened in the 4th amendment making it vulnerable and allowing the government to collect exhibits of information of all sorts.

Last year’s decision in the Carpenter v. United States case was different. The Supreme Court narrowed down the third party doctrine by stating that accessing location information (known as cell-site location information) classifies as a ‘search under the Fourth Amendment’. The court stated that a person “does not surrender all Fourth Amendment protection by venturing in the public sphere”. If there is a search to be made relative to someone’s location, then the government HAS to get a warrant.

The court explained the decision by underlining the differences between the 70’s cases and Carpenter’s. Cell-site location information is unprecedented in history. There is a huge gap between the volume and quality of the information in Smith and Miller case and Carpenter’s: nowadays with the click of a button the government can access historical location information at practically no cost.

Furthermore, this information is often collected casually and without the user noticing, by devices that are so embedded in our society that it would be hard to fit in without one.

Letting the government limitlessly access this information would be like tagging people with GPS signals on their ankles, but with Utah’s example the hope is that other states will follow this path.

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