The Third Party Doctrine Redux: Internet Search Records and the Case for a “Crazy Quilt” of Fourth Amendment Protection


The dark secrets brought to light by America Online’s recent exposure of 658,000 of its users’ search records reveal both a societal expectation of privacy in Internet searches, and an increased likelihood that such information will be used as evidence in criminal proceedings. In the absence of a statutory suppression remedy, the only bar to those records becoming Exhibits A-Z is a Fourth Amendment that, while purporting to protect expectations of privacy society would deem reasonable, utterly fails to consider what society has said about Internet searches. Increasingly, this means that courts will be faced with a choice: uphold the third party doctrine to the letter of Smith v. Maryland—or protect those expectations of privacy, legal as well as technological, that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. This Comment aims to facilitate judicial adoption of the latter by showcasing the antipodal treatment of Internet search records under the third party doctrine as against the “operational realities test,” and providing support for a rights-based re-reading of the doctrine that would restore constitutional consistency.

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