Updated Sept. 29 2018
Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.
As a New Jersey criminal defense attorney, I am sometimes asked if police can obtain your Google searches and question you about them. Presently in the news, there are a wide range of questions about the NSA and other authorities gathering data online. At the moment, it is disputed whether authorities are actually looking at the contents of each individual’s Google searches and investigating. But this recent case definitely causes some serious concerns about civil rights and privacy.
A Long Island woman was reportedly visited by local anti-terrorism officers, who inquired about her internet searches. Apparently, she was searching online for information about pressure cookers and product comparisons for a magazine article. At around the same time, her husband was shopping for backpacks for a camping trip. The next thing she knows, the authorities are at her door asking about pressure cooker bombs and backpacks, according to her reports.
How was it that authorities would know what she was searching for online? If the authorities are intercepting her communications without a warrant and analyzing her Google searches, there would be a serious issue in a criminal prosecution. I would argue that a person has the right to an expectation of privacy in their internet communications sent to a private company (like Google). The authorities would have to have a warrant before gathering that evidence. There are also serious concerns that the public is losing its right to privacy, even if there is no criminal prosecution. Certainly, it would be a great infringement of civil rights to have the government reading everything that is transmitted online.
According to the local police, it was actually the woman’s employer who tipped off the authorities. The police say that the searches were done on a work computer and the employer was monitoring the searches. In such a case, the police would not need a warrant to use this data. The courts have repeatedly held that people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using work computers and employers are free to forward search data and other suspicious information to the authorities. Employees should keep this in mind when using work computers, even for innocuous purposes.
In any event, it does not appear that this woman will suffer anything more than the inconvenience and embarrassment of a police interrogation at her home. But that is not the point. What if this woman was 100% innocent, but the police decided to pursue criminal charges? What if her husband had been from an Arabic country and her son was working on a science project for school – would the police then accuse her and her family of being terrorists involved in bomb making? These are legitimate concerns and good reasons for being vigilant in cooperation with the police. Even if you are sure that you are innocent of all crimes, it is still a good idea to exercise your right to remain silent, your right to counsel, and your right to refuse police entry to your home without a warrant. Innocent people who waive their rights could easily be accused of serious crimes after police find evidence that could, theoretically, prove guilt.
Remember, the police and prosecutors have teams of people working to put alleged criminals in jail. In the process, they may overstep their bounds or arrest innocent people. If you have any question or you or a loved one were accused of a crime, please do not hesitate to contact us for a 100% free consultation.
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