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Supreme Court considers relationship of technology, privacy

1/31/2012

While the continuing debate over IT law recently centered on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling on January 23 that touched on some of the crucial privacy questions being adjudicated as IT law evolves.

In the case of the United States vs. Jones, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that long-term GPS tracking of a criminal suspect's car violated his right to privacy as defined by the Fourth Amendment.

Privacy advocates cheered the justices' decision, but Barry Friedman, a professor at the New York University School of Law, thinks the ruling is more complicated than it might appear.

Writing in The New York Times, Friedman pointed out the justices had different rationales for voting the way they did. He said that Justice Samuel Alito argued that the GPS tracking did violate a reasonable expectation of privacy, but he acknowledged that these expectations could change.

"New technology may provide increased convenience or security at the expense of privacy, and many people may find the tradeoff worthwhile," Alito said. Friedman pointed to this statement as suggesting that ultimately, technology may erode the protections of the Fourth Amendment, as the public accepts an ever-lower standard of privacy.

Evolving standards of privacy could impact the terms of service agreements governing software and other tech products. Google recently changed its privacy policy and terms of use, sparking controversy. Supporters of the change said it improved transparency, but critics said the new terms do not give users enough control over their information.