THE continuing concern that new technology is making it easier for government to listen in on private citizens and for neighbors to tap in on each other's conversations wasn't lessened by a recent ``non-ruling'' of the United States Supreme Court. The Justices declined to hear arguments in Tyler v. Berodt, thus leaving intact a decision that people have no constitutionally protected right to privacy when at home speaking on a cordless telephone.
A lower federal court, deciding on the legality of monitored conversations of an Iowa family on a cordless phone, said that cordless users have no ``reasonable expectation of privacy,'' so that the interceptions were not a violation of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure.
The case involved two neighboring families in Dixon, Iowa - the Tylers and the Berodts.
The Tylers received a cordless phone as a gift and the Berodts found out that their cordless phone would ring and make noises whenever their neighbor's phone was in use. Their eavesdropping led the Berodts to believe that the Tylers were involved in illegal drug-dealing. They reported their discovery to the police, who not only encouraged them to keep on listening but provided them with more sophisticated equipment for this surveillance.
Taped recordings led to drug-dealing charges, which were later dropped, but tapes of the conversations resulted in a conviction on criminal theft and conspiracy charges.
The Tylers later sued the Berodts and the government, contending that warrantless monitoring of their cordless phone constituted a violation of their constitutional rights. The courts didn't see it that way.
The result seems to be better technology but less privacy for millions of Americans who now use this portable equipment. The industry estimates that 9 million cordless phones were purchased in the US last year by one-fourth of telephone customers.
Ironically, citizens with traditional phones have a higher expectation of privacy. A landmark Supreme Court decision of the mid-1960s makes it illegal for police to listen to conversations on these phones without a specific search warrant.
The high court's action, or inaction, on cordless phones is not only binding in Iowa, but also in Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These states come under the province of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a lower court in the Iowa case.
But the potential is there to narrow privacy protections elsewhere unless federal legislation puts a stop to it.
The latter is just what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other rights groups hope will happen.
Janlori Goldman, ACLU legislative counsel, said (in an interview over a corded phone) that Congress will be lobbied next spring to broaden privacy laws to include cordless phones. ``Conversations on the telephone are private, regardless of what kind of telephone,'' she insists.
Ms. Goldman charges that the ``new technology is undermining our expectations of privacy.'' Not surprisingly the losing brief in the Tyler case took the same tack. ``Americans justifiably expect privacy in their residential phone conversations,'' it said. ``That expectation is not based on technology but on faith in our constitutional system.''