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N.J. sets net privacy standard in case involving Comcast

Tue, 04/22/2008 - 8:30am
Brian Santo

Law enforcement agencies cannot compel Internet service providers to release personal information about their customers without a valid subpoena, according to a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the first court to so hold.

The seven members of the court unanimously found that the state’s constitution gives greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the U.S. Constitution.

The decision will cover only cases in New Jersey. Federal courts have established minimal protections for privacy on the Internet, which has set the tone for most courts that have tackled the issue thus far.

The ruling upheld lower court decisions that restricted police from obtaining the identity of a New Jersey woman accused of hacking into her employer’s computer system.

The police approached Comcast to get information on the woman, who was the main suspect from the start, but Comcast refused to release any information about any subscriber without a subpoena. The police delivered a subpoena from a municipal court, and Comcast complied.

The case hinged on whether a municipal subpoena was valid. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled it was not; it said a criminal grand jury subpoena was necessary because an indictable offense was at issue.

As a practical matter in the case, though the evidence provided by Comcast must be thrown out, law enforcement can reapply for the information under a valid subpoena.

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