Elizabeth E. Joh
U.C. Davis School of Law
Arizona Law Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, (2013), Forthcoming
The police tend to think that those who evade surveillance are criminals. Yet the evasion may only be a protest against the surveillance itself. Faced with the growing surveillance capacities of the government, some people object. They buy "burners" (prepaid phones) or "freedom phones" from Asia that have had all tracking devices removed, or they hide their smartphones in ad hoc Faraday cages that block their signals. They use to surf the internet. They identify tracking devices with GPS detectors. They avoid credit cards and choose cash, prepaid debit cards, or bitcoins. They burn their garbage. At the extreme end, some "live off the grid" and cut off all contact with the modern world.
These are all examples of what I call privacy protests: actions individuals take to block or to thwart government surveillance for reasons that are unrelated to criminal wrongdoing. Those engaged in privacy protests do so primarily because they object to the presence of perceived or potential government surveillance in their lives. How do we tell the difference between privacy protests and criminal evasions, and why does it matter? Surprisingly scant attention has been given to these questions, in part because Fourth Amendment law makes little distinction between ordinary criminal evasions and privacy protests. This article discusses the importance of these ordinary acts of resistance, their place in constitutional criminal procedure, and their potential social value in the struggle over the meaning of privacy.