Privacy Asymmetries: Access to Data in Criminal Defense Investigations


This Article introduces the phenomenon of “privacy asymmetries,” which are privacy statutes that permit courts to order disclosures of sensitive information when requested by law enforcement but not when requested by criminal defense counsel. In the U.S. adversarial criminal legal system, defense counsel are the sole actors tasked with investigating evidence of innocence. Law enforcement has no constitutional, statutory, or formal ethical duty to seek out evidence of innocence. Therefore, statutes that selectively suppress defense investigations selectively suppress evidence of innocence. Privacy asymmetries form a recurring, albeit previously unrecognized, pattern in privacy statutes. They likely arise from legislative oversight and not reasoned deliberation. They risk unnecessary harms to criminal defendants and the truth-seeking process of the judiciary by advantaging the search for evidence of guilt over that for evidence of innocence. The number of these harms will only increase in the digital economy as private companies collect immense quantities of data about our heart beats, movements, communications, consumption, and more. Much of that data will be relevant to criminal investigations and available to the accused solely through the very defense subpoenas that privacy asymmetries block. Moreover, the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools into the criminal justice system will exacerbate the consequences of law enforcement’s and defense counsel’s disparate access to data. To avoid enacting privacy asymmetries by sheer accident, legislators drafting privacy statutes should include a default symmetrical savings provision for law enforcement and defense investigators alike.

About the Author

Assistant Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.