Interpreting the Constitution in the Digital Era


In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Jeffrey Rosen discusses how technological changes are challenging basic Constitutional principles of freedom of speech and our own individual autonomy.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. The digital world that we’ve come to rely on – the Internet, social networks, GPS’s, street maps—also creates opportunities to collect information about us, track our movements and invade our privacy. Add to that brain scans that might reveal criminal tendencies and new developments in genetic medicine and biotechnology, and you have a lot of potential challenges to basic Constitutional principles that our founding father couldn’t possibly have imagined.

My guest, Jeffrey Rosen has put together a new book that explores those challenges. Along with Benjamin Wittes, he co-edited Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change. It’s a publication of the Brookings Institution’s Project on Technology and the Constitution, which Rosen directs. He’s also a law professor at George Washington University and legal editor for The New Republic.

His new book is a collection of essays in which a diverse group of legal scholars imagine plausible technological developments in or near the year 2025 that would stress current Constitutional law, and they propose possible solutions.

Jeffrey Rosen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So what are the particular parts of the Constitution that you think really come into play here with new technologies?

JEFFREY ROSEN: Well, what’s so striking is that none of the existing amendments give clear answers to the most basic questions we’re having today. So, for example, think about global positioning system technologies, which the Supreme Court is now considering. Can the police, without a warrant, put a secret GPS device on the bottom of someone’s car and track him 24/7 for a month?

Well, the relevant constitutional text is the Fourth Amendment which says the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. But that doesn’t answer the question: Is it an unreasonable search of our persons or effects to be monitored in public spaces?

Some courts have said no. Several lower court judges and the Obama administration argue that we have no expectation of privacy in public, because it’s theoretically possible for our neighbors to put a tail on us or for the police to track us for 100 miles, as the court has said. Therefore, we have to assume the risk that we’re being monitored, ubiquitously, 24/7 for a month.

But not everyone agrees. In a visionary opinion, Judge Douglas Ginsburg on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said there’s a tremendous difference between short-term and long-term surveillance. We may expect that our neighbors are watching when we walk on the street for a few blocks, but no one in practice expects to be tailed or surveilled for a month.

Ginsburg said we do have an expectation of privacy in the whole of our movements, and therefore when the police are going to engage in long-term surveillance, because they can learn so much more about us, they should have a warrant.

There was a remarkable moment in the oral argument for the global positioning system case. Chief Justice John Roberts, who asked the first question, he said: Isn’t there a difference between 100-mile search of the kind we’ve approved in the past and watching someone for a month?

The government’s lawyer resisted, and Roberts said: Is it the U.S. government’s position that the police could put GPS devices inside the clothes of the members of this court, of these justices, or under our cars and track us for a month? And when the government’s lawyer said yes, I think he may have lost the case.


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