Supreme Court Ruling Protects Cell Phone Privacy

Warranted.

This morning the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a unanimous 9-0 decision on Riley v. California that police cannot, with few exceptions, search a cell phone without a warrant to do so. The whole opinion is structured as a critique of warrantless data collection, based on norms that precede cell phones, and much of the case delves into just how different 16 gigabytes of information on a phone is from pictures in a wallet or a handwritten book of phone numbers.

The major exception is in case of exigency, where immediate need to save lives justifies warrantless entry. Exigency itself is subject to a lot of legal debate, and the court addresses it again here, noting that “unlike the search incident to arrest exception, the exigent circumstances exception requires a court to examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search in each particular case.” This is in keeping with Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless search and seizure.

In addition, the case echoes another cell phone privacy case decided just weeks ago by a lower court in Florida, which asserted that the private details of life as recorded on a phone are still protected from warrantless search, even if the person uses their phone in public. It’s an acknowledgement of modern information storage and data collection both. Key to the ruling is the technological sophistication of cell phones. The Court writes:

There’s also an understanding that the large amount of interconnected information stored on a phone is qualitatively different than the individual pieces of data it’s made of:

The case concludes:

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.