Dumpster Diving and Privacy

neighborhood watchPrivacy is a thing of the past.  In the American culture of today, nothing is sacred.  People post embarrassing pictures on social media, the FBI taps phone calls, and the media can dig into anyone’s past.  Before the advent of the internet, one could escape his past by moving to a new area.  Not so today: what appears on the internet stays on the internet.  Companies can get potential employees by examining their social profile.  Damaging information is easier to procure than ever.  Even if you do not have a Facebook page, you know how difficult it is to remain isolated.  Whether you live in a big town, drive on crowded highways, or own a cell phone, seclusion is not something you experience often.

Americans place great value on privacy.  We fight hard for our freedom from oppression.  Nobody wants their personal information disseminated across town or across cyberspace.  Webster’s dictionary defines privacy as the freedom from unauthorized intrusion.  It is the expectation that confidential information divulged in a private space will not be disclosed to a third party when that disclosure would cause either embarrassment or emotional distress to a person of reasonable sensitivities. Information includes facts, images, and disparaging opinions.

One would think that the freedom from intrusion of seclusion would be rigorously guarded by the government, but sadly this does not extend to waste materials.  In a landmark case on the issue, the Supreme Court ruled, in California v. Greenwood, that the police have a right to search garbage without a search warrant.  Many state authorities consider trash to be abandoned property, which means that it has become part of the public domain and is open to access, and even ownership, by anyone who claims it.  The majority opinion in California v. Greenwood states that “It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.”  Such opinions have given rise to the popular habit known as dumpster diving.

Dumpster diving involves a scavenger (or collector) sorting through a dumpster in order to retrieve discarded items, though the more dedicated or athletic divers will actually clamber into the dumpster itself.  Dumpster divers not only forage for items in apartment building dumpsters, but also on the curbsides of homes.   Dumpster diving itself is not illegal, but sifting through the contents of trashcans for personal information for use in fraud is illegal.  When dollars are involved, one man’s trash really does become another’s treasure; or rather, one man’s information becomes another man’s weapon.

The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, but your trash is up for grabs.  Once trash leaves the building, it becomes public property.   If you want to keep your documents away from prying eyes, make sure you shred.  If you want to keep important or personal documents away from reporters, the police, thieves, or your mother-in-law, call Tarheel Imaging.