The Thorny Combination of Old Laws and New Tech

How do courts know whether a new technology is just an improved version of something they've already seen, or something else entirely?

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Some technological changes are small: There's not a world of difference between a rotary-dial and a keypad-dial phone. Others, such as cell phones, are huge, reshaping how we communicate, plan, and organize our lives. 

The smaller changes, such as the shift from rotary to keypads, are no more than improvements to our existing capabilities. Some of these improvements are important -- say, a medicine with fewer side effects -- but they do not fundamentally reshape our culture. They are changes in degree.

But the bigger technological leaps are changes in kind. They are not just an enhancement of an old technology but something new unto themselves.

The difference is not always clear. Are smartphones just better cell phones, or are their capabilities so different as to make them a new thing?

Are smartphones just better cell phones, or are their capabilities so different as to make them a new thing?

For the most part, it's fine if we don't have a clear answer to that question. Smartphones may be just better cell phones in some ways, and may be something new in other ways.

But there's one area where teasing out whether something is a change in degree or a change in kind can have real-life ramifications: law. Judges must constantly grapple with the question of how we ought to apply old law to new technology: Is the new technology enough like an old technology that the old precedents apply? Or, is a technology so different that it requires new legal interpretations?

For examples, does the right to bear arms extend to a machine gun? What about a rocket launcher? If law enforcement can seize my handwritten mail from a third party, can it therefore take my email from Google? Is email just a better version of mail (change in degree) or is it a new capability (change in kind)?

Of all the areas of Constitutional law, it is the Fourth Amendment that has dealt with the brunt of technological change (at least for now -- more on that later). Historically, the amendment limited the government's ability to enter a home (search) and take property (seize). The amendment did not imagine an era when we have cars, mobile devices, and communicate over wires. 

A case now before the Supreme Court asks the justices to tease once again out the logical corners of fourth-amendment law in relation to a new technology -- in this instance to decide whether it is constitutional to use GPS to track a suspect's car without a warrant. In the case, the government maintains that since streets are public, it has a right to monitor someone's whereabouts when that person is in public. (Under fourth-amendment law, people in public places have much less protection than people in their private homes.) 

The police have a long-established right to observe citizens, with plain eyesight or technology such as binoculars, when those citizens are out and about in public. Based on that principle, in 1983 the Court said that law enforcement could also use beepers to track a suspect's car, because beepers, like binoculars would give police a picture of the suspect's public whereabouts, something the police were entitled to see: "A police car following [the suspect] at a distance throughout his journey could have observed him." Since the beeper did not allow anything that was not already possible, the beeper got the green light. 

And with that, the Court opened the door to the current challenge. 

Is a GPS like a beeper? Yes and no, but it's a lot easier to see how a GPS is like a beeper than it is a pair of binoculars.

Is a GPS like a beeper? Yes and no, but it's a lot easier to see how a GPS is like a beeper than it is a pair of binoculars. In this way, beepers act as a bridge technology, one that allows for what I'm going to call "argument creep" -- the process by which an argument is applied to situations it never accounted for, through gradual changes in technologies it never foresaw. Because the justices couldn't see the future, they compared beeper technology to what they knew, not what it could one day lead to. (In contrast, in another fourth-amendment case -- this one about using heat-seeking equipment to determine whether a suspect was growing marijuana inside his home -- Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned that the Court should take the "long view," accounting not only for the technology at hand, but ones that may be like it down the road, such as something that allowed police to see directly through walls.)

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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