Recently, the United States Supreme Court had to answer a simple, yet profoundly important question: Are cellphones “private?”
In short, their unanimous answer was “yes” as law enforcement authorities are now required to obtain a warrant to search the digital content of citizens’ cellphones.
The Supreme Court’s ruling likens cellphone data to personal property. In the same way police can’t search your home without a warrant, the same now applies to cellphone data that “could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers” according to Chief Justice John G. Roberts.
A 1973 Supreme Court case, United States v. Robinson, allowed officers to conduct pat-down searches of suspects and look at physical objects found on them. Until now, this 41-year-old ruling has been the justification for police searching cellphone data without a warrant.
If a cellphone is found on the suspect, some law enforcement officials reasoned that going through data on the cellphone is no different than looking at any other physical object they might find.
But the recent Supreme Court ruling is making a distinction between physically searching the cellphone as opposed to looking through the data. Law enforcement officials are still allowed to search for physical threats such as hidden razor blades within the phone, but that’s not the same as scrutinizing text messages, call logs and other digital data.
However, they can still seize the phone itself, place it in a “Faraday bag” (which isolates it from radio waves, eliminating the potential for clearing the data remotely) and search through the data later after obtaining a warrant.
Of course, the question that remains is how difficult it will be for police to obtain these warrants. Some police departments, such as the City of Tampa Police Department, have already been obtaining warrants before searching through cellphone data.
Going forward, any cellphone data obtained without a warrant will be inadmissible in court. So even if the illicitly obtained cellphone data definitively proves a suspect’s guilt, it won’t result in a conviction.
The Chicago Police Department (CPD) might have to significantly modify their practices as a result of the ruling. The CPD, among others, is rumored to be using “Stingray” devices that scan cellphones for call logs, text messages and other digital data.
Some claim that CPD has used these devices for years, but the city has not publicly acknowledged it. They’re currently being sued for allegedly refusing to disclose documents related to the purchase of Stingray devices.
With civil liberty debates becoming more and more contentious, many are applauding the Supreme Court’s ruling. From now on, the data on your cellphone is considered as private as the inside of your house and the trunk of your car.