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Police have access to personal digital data

Accepting an exhaustive list of terms and conditions before signing up for an online service or downloading a useful piece of software is something that many Maryland residents have done. This fine print often allows technology companies to gather and store large amounts of personal information, which may then be shared with marketing companies, data brokers and law enforcement. Media outlets have sometimes reacted angrily when social media platforms have sold user data to advertising firms, but there has been little outrage over the sharing of this information with law enforcement.

Only three states currently require police to produce a search warrant to obtain user data. Some technology firms have policies in place that limit access to confidential information, but they generally only require police departments and federal agencies to provide a subpoena. This state of affairs has civil rights groups worried because technology companies have an undistinguished record when it comes to protecting privacy and police do not have to show probable cause to obtain a subpoena.

The ride-sharing company Uber was presented with just 231 search warrants in 2017, but it gave police information about 3,000 of its drivers and customers. Some technology companies do not even ask for a subpoena before handing over personal information. The popular messaging application Snapchat says that it will freely release any data that it has reason to believe is needed to comply with a valid legal process.

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures, but the Constitution was written long before the advent of smartphones and social media. Until Congress or the courts put more robust measures in place to protect personal digital information, experienced criminal defense attorneys may advise their clients to be extremely careful about how they use technology that is often taken for granted.

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