Applying the Fourth Amendment to the global Internet

I recently posted a draft of a new forthcoming article, The Fourth Amendment and the Global Internet, and I thought I would say a bit about it.

The global nature of Internet surveillance is one of the many revelations from Edward Snowden’s disclosures that began last summer. A decade or two ago, Internet surveillance meant surveillance inside the United States. When asking how the Fourth Amendment applied to the Internet, we naturally assumed that the target, the evidence, and the government were inside the United States. But the Internet has changed. That assumption is less and less true. A fascinating opinion handed down on Friday from Magistrate Judge Francis in New York showcases the problem. In a routine application for a warrant to obtain a target’s e-mail in a domestic investigation, it turned out that the data was stored on a server in Ireland rather than the United States. How do the rules change? How should Fourth Amendment law adapt?

My new article, forthcoming in the Stanford Law Review, takes on these questions. Here’s the abstract:

This article considers how Fourth Amendment law should adapt to the increasingly worldwide nature of Internet surveillance. It focuses on two types of problems not yet addressed by courts. First, the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez prompts several puzzles about how the Fourth Amendment treats monitoring on a global network where many lack Fourth Amendment rights. For example, can online contacts help create those rights? What if the government mistakenly believes that a target lacks Fourth Amendment rights? How does the law apply to monitoring of communications between those who have and those who lack Fourth Amendment rights? The second category of problems follows from different standards of reasonableness that apply outside the United States and at the international border. Does the border search exception apply to purely electronic transmission? And if reasonableness varies by location, is the relevant location the search, the seizure, or the physical person?

The article explores and answers each of these questions through the lens of equilibrium-adjustment. Today’s Fourth Amendment doctrine is heavily territorial. The article aims to adapt existing principles for the transition from a domestic physical environment to a global networked world in ways that maintain the preexisting balance of Fourth Amendment protection. On the first question, it rejects online contacts as a basis for Fourth Amendment protection; allows monitoring when the government wrongly but reasonably believes that a target lacks Fourth Amendment rights; and limits monitoring between those who have and those who lack Fourth Amendment rights. On the second question, it contends that the border search exception should not apply to electronic transmission and that reasonableness should follow the location of data seizure. The Internet requires search and seizure law to account for the new facts of international investigations. The solutions offered in this article offer a set of Fourth Amendment rules tailored to the reality of global computer networks.

Allow me to add an autobiographical note. I began this article several years ago, but I put it aside after a first draft. I did so in part because there was no hurry: Although the issues it addressed surely were relevant to three-letter agencies, I guessed that the issues wouldn’t reach the public or any Article III courts for many years to come. Snowden changed that. I dusted off the old draft and returned to the issue after the Snowden disclosures began, a decision that Friday’s opinion makes more timely than I would have expected.

In any event, comments are very welcome on the draft.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law.

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