Unlike the United Kingdom, U.S. citizens don't have an explicit right to privacy in the Constitution. Although there are implied privacy rights within "penumbras" of the Bill of Rights this has evolved into various laws that have changed depending on the situation... it's hard to sus though and figure out.

Generally speaking,

  • What frequently used law does does the Government rely on to search private property? (e.g. warrant, detainment, or arrest)

  • What "domains of authority" are relevant? Is it strictly hierarchical: local, state, Federal?

  • When can corporations, search private equipment without violating tort laws? (as the 14th amendment doesn't apply to them)

For a government example, despite schools having en loco parentis authority, private schools have more flexibility with the 14th amendment than state funded schools do.

For a private example, if I bring my laptop to a mall, does the mall security officer have the right to detain my equipment? ... or search it?

Furthering the private example, from what I can tell parents are always allowed to search the property of their children.


My need is to identify a general framework of where exceptions to privacy may exist in the interactions of Government, corporations, and private citizen, and not be an exhaustive list.

My goal is to use this with instructional material to motivate people to care about computer privacy within those contexts, because often times people either share more than necessary, or don't guard themselves appropriately without thinking of the consequences.

  • I don't have a complete answer for you, but I can tell you that they can search your laptop when you're entering the country. The other details I believe are still somewhat being decided by the courts, often on an individual basis. The EFF has an article about the border stuff at eff.org/press/releases/…, and I've read things on their site that talk about this general topic, so you may wish to read up on there. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 17:47
  • 2
    Where in the UK's constitution is there an explicit right to privacy? Where is the UK's constitution?
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 18:55

2 Answers 2


This question is framed such that it could include myriad different scenarios that could lead to a search of one's personal computer. You seem to gear the bulk of your inquiry toward when the government can search, but then move to when a corporate entity has the right to do so, which is a very different thing. These are different issues with different concepts and rules that dictate when this can occur lawfully. You might want to narrow your question a bit.

By way of generalization: the citizens of the U.S. have an implied right to privacy as construed through the Bill of Rights, even though there is no explicit right written into the constitution. The most common way to conduct a search in the U.S. is with probable cause through a search warrant. There are questions and answers both on here, as well as resources all over the internet, pertaining to constitutionally accepted forms of search and seizure such that you could get that information fairly easily. However, as with the U.K., and despite any rights (explicit or implicit), there are many ways your computer could be searched by the government - both known to the owner and unknown - and even remotely, that use means less common to the standard search warrant. As you've probably heard from the revelations of Edward Snowden (Wikileaks), the governments of the world have been shown to search metadata and other electronic records without a warrant under laws aimed toward protecting national security. In the U.S. the Patriot Act gave wide reaching powers to invade the privacy of individuals that required no oversight or basis for doing so. Corporations that deal with the transmission of data work with government entities to to accomplish this end.

As one individual has already noted, you subject yourself to search (which includes your computer) upon entry to the country through customs. There are many ways that the government can and does engender to search computers, computer files, emails, metadata, etc.

A corporation may search your personal computer under a contractual relationship you create with it (for instance if you work from home and elect to use your home computer, and to do so you elect to agree to allow the entity to inspect your computer for their intellectual property in certain circumstances). They can also do this pursuant to a civil lawsuit, which can allow for the inspection of your computer through the process of discovery.

These are just some of the ways your information can become subject to inspection (search) by government or corporate entities. Again, your question would need to be limited more to address any one situation more fully.

  • Thank you. I'm using this information to create a plausible scenario for decrypting data my encryption algorithm produced. My goal is to identity the correct authorities for civil and government authorities that can make such a request. So a court order is needed for corporations. Is there any governmental authority that OKs the arbitrary search of data? e.g. a specific division of the FBI, NSA, etc? Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 17:57
  • Post 9/11 many different government agencies have acquired this authority with national security being the umbrella that widened the net allowing for the authority without court oversight.
    – gracey209
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 18:00
  • 6/1 Patriot Act expired but by the next day large portions of it were extended. Look at this cnn.com/2015/05/30/politics/… and then this ibtimes.com/…
    – gracey209
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 18:04
  • 1
    USA rights to privacy, such as they are, only extend to USA citizens (worldwide) and non-citizens within the USA. Same with UK rights to privacy: they only apply to non-citizens within the UK, or the UK citizens worldwide. Part of the known "benefit" of the USA-Australia-UK-NZ-Canada "Five Eyes" security agreement is the USA can use their UK intelligence gathering partners to spy on USA citizens without violating the USA constitution, and the UK can use their USA intelligence partners to spy on UK citizens without violating the UK constitution.
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 1:00
  • "Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden described the Five Eyes as a "supra-national intelligence organization that does not answer to the known laws of its own countries". Documents leaked by Snowden in 2013 revealed that the FVEY has been spying on one another's citizens and sharing the collected information with each other, although the FVEY nations maintain that this was done legally." (they openly admit to using each other as constitutional loopholes to spying on their own citizens, since they aren't permitted to do so directly (but they do that too, despite illegalities).
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 1:04

A search warrant can be issued in Ca Family Court for a petioner in a domestic violence action to 'record unlawful communication'. I.E., a defendant making or attempting contact with a protected party by mail, phone, txt, email ect. in violation of a restraining order (RO) currently in force. Such warrants are granted by a judge upon a 'preponderance of the evidence'.

Some of the terms used in the court documents are deceptively misleading however. 'Record Communications' sounds harmless enough if the defendant has not or has no intention of violating the RO, but can easily lead to unlawful invasion of privacy.

In reality, a wiretap of the subjects electronic devices, phones, cell phones, computers et al, has been authorized, and all data within or business conducted on said devices can be accessed (possible, yet access of stored data is illegal and specified as such) although no irrelevant information is admissible as evidence in any court proceeding.

A 'preponderance of the evidence' sounds reasonable and just as well, yet in reality this in practice is more often than not nothing more than statements made by the plaintiff without substanciation or 'proof' and without prior knowledge by or opportunity to object to or defend against by the respondent before actual 'search and seizure' activities ensue.

This is a measure taken by the court with the best of intentions, while simontaneously a measure subject to frequent and gross abuse by some petitioners.

More information available by web searching: Ca. Family Law Domestic Violence Order To Record Communications.

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