The Supreme Court of New Jersey has ruled that people have an expectation of privacy when they are online, and law enforcement officials need a grand jury warrant to have access to their private information. While the ruling only affects New Jersey state law, the holding will take precedence over weaker federal court decisions that hold there is no right to privacy on the internet.

The court ruled in the case of Shirley Reid of Lower Township, Cape May County, who was charged with second-degree computer theft for hacking into her employer’s computer system from her home computer. Township police obtained her identity from Comcast by using a municipal court subpoena. The Supreme Court held that law enforcement had the right to investigate her but should have used a grand jury subpoena.

The unanimous seven-member court held that police do have the right to seek a user’s private information when investigating a crime involving a computer, but must follow legal procedures. The court said authorities do not have to warn a suspect that they have a grand jury subpoena to obtain the information.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said: “We now hold that citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy protected by Article I … of the New Jersey Constitution, in the subscriber information they provide to Internet service providers — just as New Jersey citizens have a privacy interest in their bank records stored by banks and telephone billing records kept by phone companies.”

The case has significant implications for how courts could possibly interpret online privacy in e-mails and other forms of electronic communication. Federal courts have been reluctant to offer stronger protections in defense of online privacy except when there is a clear violation by the government under complicated statues like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. This is the first ruling in the country that seeks to raise the bar on the privacy standards for online activities. It would help influence other state decisions and eventually could reach the Supreme Court.

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