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With Supreme Court Hotel Registry Ruling, Google Bags Privacy Win

An LA ordinance could have enabled warrantless demands for user data, the search giant said.


When the Supreme Court returned to session this morning, Google came away batting .500. The high court declined to hear Google’s appeal to settle a lawsuit over its Street View technology. But the justices did hand Google a minor victory in an unrelated case, which may have broad implications for the company’s stake on privacy.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court overturned an ordinance in Los Angeles permitting police to seize information from hotel registries on demand, sans warrant. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the majority opinion, deemed the ordinance unconstitutional and claimed hotel owners should be able to sign off on these searches first. The city’s law, she went on, was written in such a way to extend to any business.

That last rationale came with Google’s help. It was the only private company to file an amicus brief in the case. Here’s the whole thing, if you care to read.

And here’s the relevant part, which gets at Google’s concern: That a policy such as the one in Los Angeles would allow public entities to access its users’ information (Gmail, search history, etc.) without review or Google’s input or approval.

Under the reasoning advanced by petitioner, the government could rely on a combination of the third-party doctrine and the administrative-search doctrine to compel a business — including, perhaps, an Internet-based service provider — to collect and retain information from its customers and then produce it without any opportunity for pre-compliance judicial review or notice to the affected customers.

That has happened to Google before. In January, the company said it had fought government requests to surrender data of WikiLeaks members without notifying them. In May, Google released those documents as proof. Then, over the weekend, evidence came out, as reported in The Intercept, that the Department of Justice had sought intel on one WikiLeaks affiliate in particular — prominent activist Jacob Applebaum — and successfully restricted Google from telling him so.

These disclosures, like the Supreme Court case, suggest that Google is pouring in legal resources to distance its data collection architecture from the government’s.

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