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Civil liberty protections have yet to catch up with technology
Published 3/19/2013 6:00:00 AM
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Facebook, that towering pillar of Internet society, is used daily by millions to send information between friends, family and whomever else the user deems worthy of seeing their profile.

But, what happens when the user is forced to access their account and share that private information with someone else? One recent case presents a pretty bleak picture for the future of our rights in an increasingly-digital society.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union demanded an apology from the Everett School District when eighth-grader Samantha Negrete was called into the vice principal’s office and told by the administrator to access her Facebook account for him, according to Everett’s community newspaper, The Herald.

The vice principal was investigating an alleged incident of cyber bullying, and trying to find a picture taken on school grounds and during school hours, said Mary Waggoner, school district spokeswoman, according to The Herald.

Problem is, Negrete was never suspected of being involved with the cyber bulling; instead, vice principal Bryan Toutant used his position and his ‘well-intentioned’ motive to coerce Negrete into revealing private information.

"He did not have the right to bring her in and bully her and coerce her," Samantha’s mother, Connie Becerra said, according to The Herald. "Our kids do have a right to privacy."

When she learned of the incident, Becerra contacted the ACLU, who agreed that Toutant’s actions were “likely illegal and most certainly improper,"according to The Herald.

"It's an awful thing to do to a 14-year-old kid who's done nothing wrong,"Linda Mangel, an attorney at the ACLU of Washington, told The Herald.

Both the federal and state constitution protect against unwarranted searches, such as a public school district perusing a student's Facebook page, Mangel said, according to The Herald.

No authority has the right to simply search private correspondence unless it can show probable cause that a crime is being committed. North Middle School certainly did not have probable cause, as Negrete was not even suspected of being involved.

The Internet, however, poses a particularly troublesome challenge for civil liberties in the digital age. The question of whether or not such protections can reasonably be afforded to social media remains open, and makes cases such as Negrete’s so vital to defending civil liberties against this sort of authoritarian encroachment.

Currently, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, written in 1986 when it was nearly inconceivable for an email to be stored on the internet over 180 days, the government claims it has the right to access any of your personal documents stored online without a warrant, according to Grover Norquist and the ACLU.

Meanwhile, in Bluffdale, Utah, the National Security Administration is building a $2 billion, one million square foot spy center designed to search, analyze, and store vast amounts of personal data, including emails and phone calls, according to Wired.

Finally, just this week, Facebook itself acknowledged that it has been able to create a massive log of every website its members have visited during the previous 90 days, as well as where non-members go after they’ve been on a Facebook page, according to Tech2.

This all amounts to a serious problem for citizens in this century, as the Internet becomes such a vital and major part of our lives, and yet authorities do little to nothing to defend our liberties.

Negrete’s story is so important as it perfectly presents our current quandary: we live in a world in which the authorities assume they have every right to all of our information they can access, and that constitutional protections against warrantless searches do not extend to the digital realm.

In Negrete’s case, a school administrator abused his authority to essentially threaten a student to reveal private information.

“She was likely called to the school's office because she's an honor student and athlete whom the vice principal knew had respect for authority and used that authority to tell her to open up her Facebook page," Mangel said, according to The Herald.

The government is approaching websites and demanding access to private information without a warrant, a practice that has become all too common over the past decade as it searches tirelessly for evidence of ‘terrorism.’

If nothing else, Negrete’s case highlights the danger of allowing authority to simply assume it has the right to access our private information, largely because the rules governing that access have not evolved with technology.

As a society, we must remain vigilant to preserve our liberties as we transition into a more Internet-based age. The Fourth Amendment should protect our digital correspondence from searches, especially in a world which generates and stores a staggering amount of personal data on a daily basis.

-Matthew Kenyon is a senior history major from Marysville. He can be contacted at 335-2290 or by The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of Student Publications.



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