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The Supreme Court rules that police can't search your phone without a warrant

The privacy rights that protect you in your home now extend to the data on your smart phone.

Published: June 25, 2014 08:30 PM

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The Supreme Court today handed a victory to privacy advocates with its ruling in Riley v. California and the related United States v. Wurie. In fact, the opinion could have wide implications for consumer privacy when it comes to cell phones and the data they store.

The two cases concern instances of warrantless police searches of cell phones that belonged to people they’d arrested. Referring to cell phones as “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,” the Court also recognized the very personal nature of the info contained in those phones, ruling as a result that warrants are indeed required before they can be searched.

Cell phones are actually “minicomputers,” said the Court, with “immense storage capacity.” They’re cameras, video players, televisions, maps, libraries, and more, and they contain the kind of information you’d have found only in the home until now. And the home is one place where privacy is highly protected.

For more advice and info, check our guide to Internet security.

“What’s important is that the Court recognized the way technology reveals a lot more info about us, and that triggers privacy protection in a way that’s different than others,” said Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Today’s opinion could have implications for other forms of government collection of private info, Fakhoury added. Although the case doesn’t specifically address things like data collection by the NSA, “it has some good language that things may be different when it comes to digital data,” Fakhoury said. For example, the case might get cited in challenges to the government’s collection of data stored by phone carriers.

And it could go further. Although the Fourth Amendment applies only to the government, Justice Samuel Alito in a concurring opinion laments that it’s become easy for “both government and private entities to amass a wealth of information about the lives of ordinary Americans.” Alito called for legislatures to decide how to react to these changes.

Will we see laws placing more restrictions on data aggregators as a result of this case? That might be pushing things too far, but today’s opinions could at least signal the beginnings of the change privacy advocates have been waiting for.

—Donna Tapellini

   

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