The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 was intended to keep the
police from shutting down newpapers and killing stories by
journalists under the pretense of searching for evidence.
Janet Reno wants to change that.
Let's say the police get a search warrant for your computer because they think
you've got kiddie porn on your hard drive, or you've written e-mail that may be
pertinent to a crime, or the IRS suspects you've cheated on your taxes. The
police can sieze your computer and make a copy of the all files on it. They
don't have to hurry to make that copy either. If they bring charges against you,
your computer and its files are evidence which doesn't have to be returned until
after your trial, if ever.
Let's say you're also a journalist who's writing a story about a corrupt local
police department, or you've been exposing abuses of the IRS, or you've been
publishing stories about a Senator's taste in prostitutes. Is the purpose of the
warrant really to search for evidence of a crime, or is the purpose to silence
you, to keep the truth from reaching the public, to protect some politician's
indiscretions from the bright light of public scrutiny?
Part of what the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 was designed to do was to keep
abuses like this from happening. It basically states that if a computer and its
files are the subject of a search warrant, and the computer is used "with a
purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other
similar form of public communication", then the police have certain restrictions
placed upon them. Namely, that they can't keep the author from getting work done
(they can't keep you and your computer apart from each other) and that they must
only retrieve and copy data that is pertinent to the warrant being served.
With the advent of the web and the popularity of home pages as a "form of
public communication", just about any computer could now fall into this
category. A good thing, right? Extend equal protection under the law to
everyone, make sure that people who are merely accused of a crime (not proven
guilty) can go on with their lives, and make sure that police don't fish through
all of your computer files looking at your entire life history while they're
investigating a possible crime. If there is evidence of wrongdoing, the police
can make copies of the evidence and go on their way, and make their case at your
Well, according to Janet Reno, allowing U.S. citizens to have this much privacy
is a Bad Thing. Now that these privacy protections apply to almost everyone's
computer, she wants to get rid of these protections altogether.
After all, if you're innocent, you have nothing to hide, right?