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By Patricia Shuler

You might be surprised at how easily law enforcement can obtain your private information

The internet is still something of a “Wild West” for privacy rights.* For the most part, that works in citizens’ favor—governments have yet to assert control over the internet the way they control television or radio—but in some cases, the absence of concrete rules allows law enforcement to take liberties with your private information in a way that would be unacceptable in most other contexts. Here are a few ways private companies share information with law enforcement, and what that means for your privacy rights.

Facebook hands over your personal data—even items you have marked “private.”

While setting a particular photo album or note to “private” may keep your ex from seeing it, it’s no protection against law enforcement. Federal and local law enforcement routinely request information from Facebook and other social networks to verify alibis, establish motive, and expose communications that might be relevant to investigations.

Facebook’s privacy policy states that they cooperate with law enforcement whenever they have a “good faith belief” that it will help prevent illegal activity—which basically means they’ll hand over your information for basically any justification law enforcement provides, with or without a warrant.

Your ISP will share details of your emails and browser history under certain circumstances.

Since email has been around a little longer, the privacy protections are somewhat stronger; but there are certain circumstances in which your ISP is permitted (or obligated) to share your personal data with law enforcement.

  • Your ISP can intercept and share messages if it “suspects” the sender intends to harm the system or another user, but it cannot monitor emails at random.
  • If either you or your message’s recipient consent, ISPs are free to share the content of your messages with law enforcement.
  • Because all your online correspondence goes through “third parties” (social networks, email services, your ISP), a warrant is not required to gain access to your online information—all police need is a court order or subpoena. Accordingly, police do not have to establish probable cause before obtaining your private information.
  • As of this summer, many ISPs have been openly deputized by the RIAA and MPAA to fight piracy by throttling bandwidth and even shutting down service for individuals accused of repeated piracy.

ISPs have access to more than just your browser history and email contacts—people who work out of the office on laptop computers give away their daily routine because ISPs keep track of where your IP address checks in from.

Cell phone companies hold a wealth of information that they routinely sell to law enforcement

Cell phone companies are even cagier about their data-sharing practices than the likes of Facebook or Google—and they possess a wealth of information that you might not realize you’re giving them. Any phone with GPS capability can tell your cell phone company who you routinely visit, what religious or political groups you belong to, and which of your contacts are most important to you—even if they don’t actually conduct a wiretap.

These requests for cell phone data have become so common that Sprint created a special website just for law-enforcement data requests—and received 8 million such requests within a year. Many law enforcement offices have simply set up automated check-ins to ping the Sprint site for updated information on the cell phones they’re tracking every three minutes.

While some of this information does require subpoenas (which are, again, easier to obtain than warrants), much of it is shared freely—and cell phone companies tell customers no more than they have to about their level of cooperation with law enforcement.

It’s easier to talk about what is not shared by third parties online

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Very few of your Fourth Amendment protections stay with you when you go online. Detailed call records, wiretaps, and the specific content of your emails are protected under most circumstances; but a good rule of thumb is that if you put any data on a telecommunications network, law enforcement has access to it.

Patricia Shuler is a staff writer from Oakland, California. She’s an admitted tech-junkie who’s quick to share her honest opinion on all things consumer electronic—including up-to-date news, user reviews, and “no holds barred” opinions on a variety of social media, tech, computer, and mobile accessories topics.

*Editor’s note – the “wild west” is a misconception, that era was actually very peaceful and non-violent. Instead of relying on arbitrary man-made legislation conflated to be law, natural law was emergent from the bottom-up. For more on this, check out:


  1. For those who don’t wear a tin foil hat to bed everynight. The police don’t PURCHASE anything from a phone of computer site. A subpeona or search warrant can get us that info for free.

    As for tracking phones. We do that more frequently than anything else. We have to fil out a sheet of paperwork for the phone company showing the extenuating circumstances.. i.e. murder suspect fleeing scene. Missing person. etc. HAs to be alot more that just” I wanna know where johnny is.”

  2. Just wait til the drones get up an running…maybe it will force the nutters underground, like mole people.

  3. Drone operators go home sometime. They have families. They mow the lawn and forget their holdout in the house. They drink in cop bars and they walk across the parking lot to their cars.

  4. Or the smart folks will simply turn the drones on the ones that are stripping the people of their rights.

  5. ooooh so scary Fakewood.

    Seems Texas is already using them. Remember, you have no expectation of privacy in public.

  6. any one who uses social media is a fool

  7. this is grate info thanks for posting this hopefully it will open peoples eyes

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