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Electronic Frontier Foundation Sues FBI Over Warrantless “Best Buy Informant” Searches

An indictment in California regarding a doctor’s possession of child pornography on his computer has raised unique legal questions implicating privacy and government informants. The illegal content was discovered by Best Buy “Geek Squad” employees who were working on the computer with the doctor’s permission but were allegedly being paid by the FBI to search for and recover illegal content. This week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”), a technology focused non-profit, filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2013), seeking documents related to the FBI’s relationship with the Best Buy Geek Squad employees who discovered the material. EFF states that the FBI’s use of paid informants to search computers without a warrant “threatens to circumvent people’s constitutional [Fourth Amendment] rights.” Regardless of the outcome of the records request by EFF, the case and subsequent lawsuit raise important questions about privacy, warrantless searches in the Internet age, and government use of informants.

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Cell-Site Location Case

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday, June 5th that it would hear a case asking it to decide whether the government needs a warrant to obtain information from cellphone companies showing their customers’ locations. The case it has agreed to hear is Carpenter v. United States, 819 F. 3d 880 (6th Cir. 2016), and involves cell-site data that authorities obtained without a warrant that placed the defendant, Timothy Carpenter, near the location of several robberies. In past cases, the Supreme Court has limited the government’s ability to use GPS devices to track suspects’ locations and has required a warrant to search cellphones. But the main precedent relied upon by the government here is the influential case Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979), which established the “third-party doctrine.” This doctrine states that the government can obtain information that is deemed part of a business record, such as dialed phone numbers, without a probable cause warrant. Cell-site data is considered a cell company business record, but also reveals sensitive details about customers’ whereabouts. The outcome of Carpenter will have implications for the proper interpretation of the third-party doctrine and the ability of the government to obtain cell-site location data.

Trump Blocks Twitter Users, Raising First Amendment Concerns

The New York Times reports that lawyers representing Twitter users blocked by President Trump sent a letter to the President this week requesting that he remove the block. The blocked users replied to a number of the President’s tweets by criticizing, mocking, or disagreeing with his positions. The lawyers, working on behalf of the Knight First Amendment Institute, based their claim on the idea that the practice violates constitutional free speech guarantees. According to CNN, when someone is blocked on Twitter, that person is unable to follow the Twitter user’s account, view that account’s tweets, or view tweets that the user liked while online. At least one federal district court has ruled that public social media accounts with the characteristics of public fora should not censor opinions or be able to block commenters based on their views. Since President Trump communicates many of his ideas and official policies through Twitter, his account might be considered a limited public forum. Regardless, if President Trump does not unblock the users, a lawsuit may follow, lawyers stated.