Tech users and digital privacy rights supporters won a major victory today as the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision upholding the rights of citizens against warantless searches. The ruling handed down today re-enforces the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure as it applies to new technologies.
Cellphones are not the same as other physical objects, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. "One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity," he wrote. "Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy. ... Most people cannot lug around every piece of mail they have received for the past several months, every picture they have taken, or every book or article they have read -- nor would they have any reason to attempt to do so."
At the heart of the decision is the difference between what material
evidence a suspect might carry on their person compared to just how
different 16 gigabytes of information on a phone as well as information stored via the cloud is from that material evidence.
But with a cellphone, "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."
Because so much data can be found by searching even an inexpensive cellphone, police must in most cases obtain warrants to search them, the court ruled. "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."
Today ruling largely stemmed from two separate cases, one from California (Riley v. California) and one from Boston Massachusetts (United States v. Wurie). Both cases involved arrests whereas information obtained from police searching cellphones of the defendants led to them being charged and convicted.
In both cases, the issue raised before the Supreme Court was whether the warrantless searches and subsequent chargers were deemed reasonable
"These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which 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," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. In both cases, the cellphones in question "are based on technology nearly inconceivable just a few decades ago," when precedent-setting cases were decided.
"Finally, there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes
cell phones but not physical records. Prior to the digital age, people
did not carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as
they went about their day. Now it is the person who is not carrying a
cell phone, with all that it contains, who is the exception," the ruling
says. "A decade ago police officers searching an arrestee might have
occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary. But
those discoveries were likely to be few and far between. Today, by
contrast, it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90% of
American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital
record of nearly every aspect of their lives -- from the mundane to the
intimate. Allowing the police to scrutinize such records on a routine
basis is quite different from allowing them to search a personal item or
two in the occasional case."
In their ruling the court acknowledged that the ruling will have an
effect on the ability of police to combat crime, but reminded us that privacy must