Supreme Court Ruling Protects Cell Phone Privacy


The United States Supreme Court
Philosophical Swag, via Twitter

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:

Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee's person. The term "cell phone" is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.

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 storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information—an address,a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video—that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.

The case concludes:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,” Boyd, supra, at 630. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. 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.