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US Supreme Court Strikes Big Blow for Digital Privacy

The Supreme Court ruled in two consolidated cases that law enforcement must get a warrant before accessing the data on an arrested person's mobile phone
The Supreme Court ruled in two consolidated cases that law enforcement must get a warrant before accessing the data on an arrested person's mobile phone

Mobile phone privacy has gotten a big wind behind it as the Supreme Court ruled to set powerful limits for police searches of devices. It ruled in two consolidated cases that law enforcement must get a warrant before accessing the data on an arrested person's mobile phone.

It’s a reversal of a norm that goes all the way back to 1973, when the Supreme Court held that police officers did not need a warrant to look inside a pack of cigarettes that they found in the coat pocket of a man who had been arrested.

“Those kinds of warrantless searches were allowed, the Court reasoned back then, to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence,” said Amy Howe said, in the Supreme Court’s SCOTUS blog.

Forty years later, California and the federal government urged the Supreme Court to adopt the same rule for cell phones, in the case of Riley v. California, which was brought by David Riley after police officers searched his phone. The Court also wrapped in the complaint from Brima Wurie, a Massachusetts man who was carrying an older “flip phone” when he was arrested.

“Once someone is arrested, they contended, police should be able to go through the entire contents of his phone without a warrant because cellphones are just like any other item that you can carry in your hand or pocket,” Howe explained.

But the Supreme Court has rejected that argument. In its opinion, the Court confirmed the importance of the warrant requirement, writing "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple--get a warrant."

Among other things, the Court weighed the extent to which searching the cell phone of someone who has been arrested will intrude on his or her privacy.

“And it is here that we really get a sense that the Justices – who as recently as 2012 relied on eighteenth-century laws prohibiting trespassing to rule in a case involving the use of GPS device to track the car of a suspected drug dealer – have become keenly sensitive to issues of digital privacy, not only for arrestees but possibly also for the rest of us.,” Howe said. To demonstrate how cellphones differ from other items that you might be carrying in your pocket, the Court noted phones’ “immense storage capacity.”

In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that mobile phones are “now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

“Because of the different kinds of data that can be stored on a cellphone, [the Court posited that] searching a cellphone could provide police with even more information about your life than they could get from searching your home,” Howe added.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which filed amicus briefs in both of the cell phone search cases, hailed the decision as a win for consumers.

"These decisions are huge for digital privacy," EFF staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury said, in a statement. "The court recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection, and cannot be searched at a police officer's whim. This should have implications for other forms of government electronic searches and surveillance, tightening the rules for police behavior and preserving our privacy rights in our increasingly digital world."

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