“I BECOME A TRANSPARENT EYE-BALL,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in the most famous sentence of “Nature.” In an age of constant surveillance, that image has taken on a sinister new meaning. Transparent eyeballs regard us everywhere we go—from cameras perched above intersections, in building lobbies, and from our phones and laptops, which watch us as much as we watch them.
For those who worry about this oppressively bright light on our activities, the Fourth Amendment offers some shade, with its clear language against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and its promise that Americans have the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects.” Lately, judges and attorneys have been scrutinizing those words, seeking to establish just how much privacy they grant us. On April 29, two cases reached the Supreme Court, asking whether the Fourth Amendment limits the right of the police to seize a cellphone from a suspect. As our lives become ever more visible to the transparent eyeballs of the future (including—yikes—drones disguised as birds and insects), the Fourth Amendment will stand at the center of the controversy.