What’s the worst possible way your online activity could come back to haunt you? Losing your job? Or getting expelled from school? How about being put to death? That’s what’s about to happen to Jared Loughner. His online search history is set to be introduced as evidence against him in his upcoming murder trial. And the prosecution is hoping to use this information to bolster their ability to seek the death penalty. The implications to our privacy are serious. As our online lives become more and more public and traceable, we leave ourselves open to having private information being used publicly in court.
As you may know, Jared Loughner is the alleged gunman responsible for the shooting last month in a crowded Arizona supermarket that left 6 dead and 14 injured, including US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. What you may not know, however, is the information that was recently released about the case as Mrs. Giffords was moved to a rehabilitation center, namely Loughner’s web searches just before the incident took place.
Another example of this same sort of privacy invasion happened when a 4-year court case came to a close after the conviction of Rosario DiGorolamo. After years of pleading his innocence to the courts he finally admitted his guilt after records for “lethal karate blows to the back of the head” were revealed. These internet searches were made just before his wife’s murder, which was carried out in a similar fashion.
While at first glance, it appears that any invasion of privacy here will only insure that Federal prosecutors are able to give a dangerous man the punishment he deserves, it also continues a trend of admitting more and more private information from suspects’ computers into court rooms and is a reminder of how little privacy exists online these days. Information posted on sites like Facebook and MySpace has already been used by police, probation officers, and university officials to punish criminals who were dumb enough to make information of their wrong-doing public. There have even been instances of UK police arresting individuals who posted pictures of themselves showing off their knives in public places (having a weapon in public is illegal in the UK). Many employers have also begun checking the social networking accounts of current and future employees for any warning signs that they should be aware of.
Increasingly though, non-public web search information like the kind being used against Loughner is being forcibly collected from defendants’ computers or even subpoenaed directly from websites that the suspects used. While many people support prosecuting pedophiles, murderers, and terrorists using any information attainable, these sorts of cases set judicial precedents that can’t be easily erased. The more private information collected and used against defendants in this manner, the more tempting it will be to use these tactics in more and more circumstances. Surely none of us expect to be prosecuted for crimes similar to Loughner’s, but the loss of privacy implied by cases like his can be a bitter pill to swallow. Google and other search engines have openly admitted that they save search results and many other online activities which assists them with their analytics and crawling processes. But it’s a very fine line between what sorts of information is public, what should remain private, and in which cases authorities should have the power to retrieve this information.
Right now, the one remaining roadblock to using this information more often is not actually the ability to acquire it, but instead the hassle of definitively proving that the person being charged is the same one who performed the searches. While Google may be able to easily go through and obtain all of your search results at any time, they still aren’t able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was actually you who pressed “Search”, even if the search came from your IP address or had your account logged in at the time. While most people would like to see Jared Loughner punished to the full extent of the law for his unthinkable crimes, bringing his search results into the court room is still a controversial issue that exacerbates privacy concerns.
Hopefully, none of us will ever experience these sorts of problems first-hand. But even without the immediate prospect of finding yourself in front of a judge for anything serious enough to have your search records pulled, the possibility can still be distressing. Just like CCTV cameras being installed in cities to monitor everything from drug deals to the issuing of parking tickets, our lives are feeling more and more like we can’t get away from the watchful eye of Big Brother. Couple that with the fact that anyone with a smartphone has a portable recording device in their pocket and our digital footprint is much bigger with our faces, locations and transactions being able to be looked up easily at any time. Also in the current under 20 generation the thought of being watched is not so invasive due to them growing up in the social media age and people are starting to have less respect for other’s personal privacy. This phenomenon is hard for most older people to accept. Jared and Rosario’s cases are part of a growing trend of high-tech online evidence finding its way into modern court rooms, and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. So be careful what you search for: it may come back to haunt you.