The (sometimes scary) state of your digital rightssource
Technology changes at lightning speed. Laws concerning electronic snooping and privacy lag considerably behind.
But important cases end up in court often enough that it pays to occasionally review where you stand in the event you and technology clash with workplace policies and law enforcement.
The first thing to know is: I am not a lawyer. Although it's possible to draw some general conclusions about the current state of digital affairs you should seek legal counsel in any encounter with the police or whenever you feel your rights are being violated.
Visit the website of digital rights watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation to stay current on Internet legislation and case law.
You basically have no rights at work
It should be clear to all workers by now that they should never use a company computer or smartphone for personal business. Yet, employees get fired and disciplined everyday for questionable Web surfing, downloading and emailing at work.
Time and again, employees also get into trouble for saying dumb things on blogs and social networks, even if it was done on their own equipment and their own time.
When disputes even make it that far, courts consistently side with employers. Your First Amendment right to free speech protects you against the government - not private employers.
Planes, homes and automobiles
If you're driving or flying back into the U.S., agents can take your laptop or other gadget and examine it without a warrant or probable cause. Your Fourth Amendment rights that protect against unreasonable search and seizure take a back seat to the government's right to fight terrorism and crime and to protect the border.
Your home is on more sacred ground. Unless you consent to a search, police can't search your home, your home computer or any of your gadgets without a warrant. When there is a warrant, it must specifically state that the computer and gadgets are part of the search.
If your computer and electronic devices are encrypted, the police can't force you to divulge your passwords. However, a judge or a grand jury can order you to disclose your data.
State laws differ when it comes to cars and smartphones. If you are pulled over while driving, for instance, and the cop suspects there is evidence of a crime in your car, state law may allow the officer to search your phone much as he would your glove box or a center console.
If you're placed under arrest, police can take your phone and whatever else is in your pockets. Some states allow police to search the phone without cause; others require a warrant. Here again, you're not required to hand over a pass code unless ordered by a court.
Snooping through the back door
In response to a recent Congressional inquiry, major cellular carriers in the U.S. revealed that they responded to a jaw-dropping 1.3 million demands for subscriber information from law enforcement agencies in 2011.
Sprint reported that it fielded approximately 1,500 law enforcement requests per day, while AT&T tallied 700.
Keep in mind that Google and many other Web services firms will do the same thing when approached by law enforcement. It's spelled out in all those Terms of Service agreements that you accept but don't read.
A simple subpoena can net the police basic account data, including credit card information. Anything beyond that - your locations, texts and calls - is supposed to require a court order or a warrant. Agencies have been known to cut through red tape by citing an imminent danger or emergency.
There's no question that smartphone surveillance has become a critical counterterrorism and crime-busting tool. Until policymakers shine a light on this shadowy part of the digital frontier, however, the arm wrestling between public safety needs and privacy rights will continue.
Meantime, there isn't much you as a consumer can do about digital dragnets, unless you avoid using your smartphone and the Internet altogether.
Good luck with that!