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Op-Ed: Amazon sees big jump in data subpoenas, search warrants

The news about Amazon receiving a higher demand for stored information cuts to the bone of privacy issues. It also raises some practical issues regarding the realities of legal processes related to stored information.
The privacy issues, explained.
Privacy is considered by most legal experts to be an inherent right. People have the natural legal right to maintain privacy over their personal affairs and business. That’s not in dispute with governments around the world.
However –
• Due legal process does require access to relevant information in any sort of court procedure.
• Parties to a dispute have the right to subpoena any information regarding a case, regardless of the type of information or the form of information.
• Refusal to supply information requested under a subpoena is a breach of law.
• Government agencies have the right to issue a search warrant for information. That right is not disputed.
Urban myths notwithstanding, subpoenas and search warrants aren’t some sort of easy out for getting around privacy laws. These procedures are fully documented, time-consuming, and subject to review by a court and opposing parties in any dispute or law enforcement scenario.
The privacy environment
The problem isn’t so much the procedures as the environment in which privacy may be overridden by laws. In the “Surveillance Society”, trust in any means of breaching privacy is at an all-time low.
Amazon has acknowledged these issues by being very pro-privacy. The problem for Amazon is that it has no choice whatsoever but to comply with subpoenas and search warrants.
The other problem is much less obvious – Amazon is a vast global business. Almost anything can be subject to subpoenas and/or search warrants, for any legitimate legal process. That means Amazon may or may not be drawn in to any commercial or law enforcement dispute to provide evidence.
It’s not an enviable situation for the company. One the one hand, it’s committed to maintaining privacy and compliance with privacy laws. On the other, it has a huge exposure to the legal realities. The volume of requests for information can be expected to expand over time, too, another costly issue.
Exactly how much of a risk to privacy? Not really much more, but…
The privacy advocates may be on the wrong bus for their various arguments in these cases. Subpoenas are standard legal practice. Search warrants are standard practice for law enforcement.
The big privacy issue, in fact, is the TYPE of information which is now available. Commercial transactions and law enforcement are no big deals in common legal practice, but what about personal information? To what extent can personal information be off limits to these processes?
Information about relationships, etc. is a grey area. If a private detective wants information about a relationship, can they subpoena through the client’s lawyers? Not really, unless there’s a legal process involved.
They may, however, be able to access personal information which is bound up in the hard information. So can other parties, getting a bit more value from subpoenas. Although legal practices tend to be very conscious of compliance requirements, some information may be built in.
In theory, subpoenas and search warrants are always case-specific. In practice, it’s a likely outcome that some other information may be mixed in, to the detriment of privacy.
Collateral damage and privacy
Some types of information can lead to revelations. A person may be conducting private business, but not want that information to become widely known, for whatever reason. “Extracurricular” work by professionals, for example, may not be in the ambit of a search warrant or subpoena, but come to light as a result. Tricky professional relationships and business may be compromised.
The risks are real enough for privacy advocates to maintain a hard line on basic rights. Privacy, by definition, should be what you want to be kept private, rather than some broad brush approach to privacy. Amazon is perhaps the best example of the sheer scope and range of possible privacy issues.
The other part of this equation is that Amazon is the big picture. Other businesses are very much in the same position. You’d have to be able to make a case for privacy based on specific issues to protect your privacy. It’s a tricky proposition in the face of these all-covering legal procedures, and some privacy may be at risk as a result.
Expect to hear a lot more on this subject as the privacy debate expands in to the sort of new areas Amazon encompasses. It’ll be a rough ride for privacy all round.

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Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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