The Volokh Conspiracy

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Final Version, "The Fourth Amendment Limits of Internet Content Preservation"

A strong Fourth Amendment claim that criminal defense lawyers should be making.


My latest article, The Fourth Amendment Limits of Internet Content Preservation, was recently published in final form by the St. Louis University Law Journal.  Here's the abstract:

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Internet accounts are copied and set aside by Internet providers on behalf of federal and state law enforcement. This process, known as preservation, ordinarily occurs without particularized suspicion. Any government agent can request preservation of any account at any time. Federal law requires the provider to set aside a copy of the account just in case the government later develops probable cause and returns with a warrant needed to compel the account's disclosure. The preservation process is largely secret. With rare exceptions, the account owner will never know the preservation occurred.

This Article argues that the Fourth Amendment imposes significant limits on the preservation of Internet account contents. Preservation triggers a Fourth Amendment seizure because the provider, acting as the government's agent, takes away the account holder's control of the account. To be constitutionally reasonable, the initial act of preservation must ordinarily be justified by probable cause—and at the very least, in uncommon cases, by reasonable suspicion. The government can continue to use the Internet preservation statute in a limited way, such as to freeze an account while investigators draft a proper warrant application. But the current practice, in which investigators order the preservation of accounts with no particularized suspicion, violates the Fourth Amendment.

The article begins:

Imagine you are an FBI agent. One day you receive an anonymous tip that a particular person has committed a crime. You go online and search for the person's name, and your search reveals that, like most American adults, the person has a Facebook account. At this point, you only have an unverified tip. You lack reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause, to believe a crime was committed. And you have no particular reason to think the Facebook account was involved. But imagine federal law gave you the power to preserve and set aside the suspect's entire Facebook account now—including every private message and every saved photo—just in case you later had the probable cause needed to access it.

Let me explain how this hypothetical law would work. At any time, you could command any Internet provider to save all of the contents of any account for up to 180 days. In response to your command, the provider would copy the entire account and set aside the copy for you without notifying the account holder. You would be unable to see the contents of the account unless you eventually develop probable cause and obtain a warrant. But you would have 180 days to develop probable cause. If no probable cause emerged, the preservation would end, and the provider would delete the saved copy without notifying the suspect. And if you developed probable cause during the 180-day period, you could get a warrant and compel the provider to hand over the contents of the account that had been previously preserved.

This hypothetical law would have obvious appeal for government investigators. A lot can happen in 180 days. The suspect might delete incriminating files. The suspect might get wise to the investigation and delete his online accounts to prevent the government from accessing them. By saving accounts at the beginning of a case, investigators could ensure that every record in existence at the outset is available if probable cause later develops. And it would all happen behind the scenes, as the provider would not disclose the preservation to the account holder. Even if the government eventually obtained a warrant and filed criminal charges, the preservation would not be disclosed during routine discovery. The entire process would remain secret.

As you might have guessed, this scenario is not just hypothetical. It describes a federal law, 18 U.S.C. § 2703(f), as it is interpreted and used today.