EDITORIAL: Affirming cellphone privacy


Pause for a moment to consider the tremendous amount of information that is either stored on, or accessible from, the cellphone in your pocket.

There’s a list of phone numbers of people you know. There are emails to and from your personal and business contacts, in some cases dating back years. There’s an Internet browser with a history of websites you’ve visited, terms you’ve searched for and items you may have purchased. There’s likely a large trove of time-and-date-stamped photographs and videos. And there are applications that contain or can access even more data, from health care information to banking transactions to passwords for your computers and other accounts.

In order for police who suspect you of committing a crime to obtain all that information, say, by searching your home, they’d need to apply for a warrant. So why should it be different when it comes to searches of your phone?

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court concluded last week in a pair of cases arising out of cellphone searches that yielded information that led to prosecutions. In one case, a phone revealed its owner’s gang affiliations, and in another, the address of its owner, where officers found drugs in a subsequent search.

Obviously, the very idea of a cellphone and the technological capacity behind it were totally unknown to the Founding Fathers. But justices did what they should in cases such as this: Apply the principles behind the Fourth Amendment — which requires warrants and probable cause to search a person, a house, or a person’s papers and effects — to modern technology.

Previous cases clearly establish the right of police to search a person who has been arrested, as well as that person’s immediate vicinity, both to locate and secure weapons that could be used against officers, as well as to preserve evidence of a crime that might otherwise be destroyed. But justices ruled that data on a cellphone doesn’t fall into either category, and thus a search warrant is required to access that information.

“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ 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.”

The court acknowledged that “our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. … Privacy comes at a cost.” But in weighing the unique nature of the modern smartphone against the interests of the government in fighting crime, the court has struck the right balance. This was a good ruling.

 

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