Big data's 4th Amendment problem

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While the country squabbles over the Second Amendment, the Fourth Amendment may need just as much attention.

Since any abuse of privacy is a potential threat in terms of regulatory ramifications that could limit the ability of industries and institutions to realize the full potential of big data, then any abuse of the Fourth Amendment should be taken seriously by this community.

The Atlantic last week took the Senate to task over persistent abuses of the amendment. For reference, the amendment reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." 

Our "papers" once comprised most of our recorded communications in the form of letters, bills and documents. Somehow, the citizenry has allowed their right to be ignored now that much of its communication is electronic. In other words, emails, text messages and other personal electronic communications deserve the same protection under the law as our telephone calls and papers.

The Atlantic says not only have citizens allowed that protection to be eroded and abused, but that the legal proceedings defining the government's and law enforcement's power to seize the information are being kept secret.

The article cites Senator Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) recent address to the Senate, which it says was ignored: "I think most Americans would be shocked to know that the Fourth Amendment does not protect your records if they're banking, Internet or Visa records. A warrant is required to read your snail mail and to tap your phone, but no warrant is required to look at your email, text or your Internet searches. They can be read without a warrant. Why is a phone call more deserving of privacy protection than an email?"

The eventual backlash against this kind of surveillance, which inevitably takes on the visual of "Big Brother," would likely sweep big data into its net. A cursory search on the two terms comes back with 2,000 mentions of Big Brother and big data in the same headline or sentence.

The Atlantic is warning that the backlash against Fourth Amendment abuses has inexplicably not begun, but should. It says abuses have already happened but it is difficult to find out how much abuse because the legal interpretation that shapes how surveillance is conducted under current law is kept secret.

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