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Government Surveillance

CDT Argues for Limits on Government Searches of Copied Hard Drives

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), along with five other non-profit advocacy organizations, has filed an amicus brief calling on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to set limits on government use of information copied from a computer hard drive seized with a warrant.

U.S. v. Ganias presents an important question: Can law enforcement, when it copies a computer’s hard drive to investigate one crime, hold copied information indefinitely, and search it indefinitely into the future for unrelated crimes? The joint brief argues that once the government has effectuated a warrant by copying a computer hard drive, it should dispose of the information irrelevant to the crime for which the warrant was issued.

“Rapid technological advances mean more and more of our lives are digitized and stored in our devices. A narrow slice of that information may be relevant to a warrant executed by seizing and copying the entire computer hard drive. If the content irrelevant to the warrant is retained indefinitely, it means an individual will be forced to live under a cloud of suspicion forever,” said Greg Nojeim, CDT Director of the Freedom, Security, and Technology Project.

“It would be a fundamental violation of the Fourth Amendment if law enforcement could seize your computer to investigate one crime, then hold all the information that is irrelevant to that crime just in case it could be useful later,” Nojeim added. “That would be an unreasonable search that violates the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment.”

In the specific case, the government copied the contents of the computer hard drives of Stavros Ganias as part of an Army investigation of improper conduct by Industrial Property Management (IPM). Ganias’ business served as IPM’s accountant. The data copied from these computers that was deemed irrelevant to the investigation was not destroyed. Instead, it was retained and searched with a new warrant by IRS investigators 18 months later for unrelated accounting irregularities.

CDT is joined on the brief by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Connecticut, the Brennan Center, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Open Technology Institute of the New America Foundation.

The amicus brief CDT and its allies filed can be found here.