iPhone with "Get a Warrant - ACLU" sticker

The Warrant Clause in the Digital Age

Last Update: May 3, 2023

What's at Stake

The information generated by today’s digital devices and online services reveals private matters far beyond what one could learn from physical analogs. In a series of legal filings and a white paper, available below, the ACLU has argued that to keep apace with technological developments and adequately protect our privacy, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement must be interpreted robustly. Seizures and searches of digital data must be cabined to probable cause, limited to specific categories of information relevant to the investigation, and closely overseen by a neutral magistrate.

We have a right to strong privacy protections when police seek, obtain, and execute search warrants for digital information, especially because what we store on on our phones, on other digital devices, and in online accounts is so comprehensive and revealing. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the primary source of protection for this right, but courts’ interpretations of what the Fourth Amendment requires for digital-age warrants to be constitutional have sometimes fallen short. Just as with analog “papers” and “effects,” warrants seeking access to our digital records must prevent against the reviled “general searches” that motivated the Fourth Amendment’s framing. If anything, the sensitive and intermingled nature of digitally stored information calls for a more protective reading of the warrant requirement, not a relaxed one. The affordances of modern technology must not be allowed to give police license to rummage indiscriminately through our private data for any cause (or no cause at all) and without judicial oversight. Instead, modern day warrants should provide robust protection against overbroad access to our digital information. Firmly established case law, Fourth Amendment first principles, and the practical realities of forensic searches all support this result, and a growing number of courts have recognized that warrants can adequately protect our in privacy interests in digitally stored information without hindering law enforcement from conducting legitimate investigations.

This paper identifies features of electronically stored data that pose novel problems for our Fourth Amendment rights, and highlights how current search-warrant practice falls short. Drawing on amicus briefs the ACLU has filed in state and federal courts across the country, the paper then sets forth legal arguments in support of robust rules for obtaining and executing warrants in the digital age. Defense attorneys, magistrates, and prosecutors seeking to protect privacy while permitting legitimate investigations can benefit from this paper, as well as the briefing and opinions included in the paper appendices.

For assistance with a case involving these issues, feel free to contact the author, Jennifer Stisa Granick, Surveillance & Cybersecurity Counsel with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, & Technology Project.

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