The Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that the police must acquire a warrant before searching a cell phone seized from someone they arrest. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the opinion on behalf of the Court, acknowledged both the individual's right to privacy and the State's need to investigate crime, but the decision came down strongly on the side of privacy rights.
Roberts pointed out “[I]t is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90% of American adults who own a cellphone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives – from the mundane to the intimate.”
This is a fact that many people don't consider until it is too late. Think about all the information someone would have access to if they were to search through your cellphone. Your email? Pictures? Calendar? Text-messages? This is information that can be found on a device in nearly every pocket in the United States. Roberts went so far as to acknowledge how even the term “cellphone” is itself misleading; “many of these devices are in fact minicomputers…[t]hey could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”
In addition to broad range of information stored on your cellphone, the Court also took into account the information that can be accessed from a cell but is stored in “the cloud.” Searching this data is “like finding a key in a suspect's pocket and arguing that it allowed law enforcement to unlock and search a house,” wrote Roberts.
While this decision may defend against an unwanted police search of your cellphone, the real lesson of today's ruling is password lock your phone. While technology gives us easy access to vast amounts of personal and public information, these devices are too easily lost, stolen, or searched for you not to protect yourself.
Now what do you suppose would happen if the police seized your phone and then could not break your password? Would there be any way for that information to be retrieved? Is your password information held anywhere besides your phone?
And just what will it take to get a warrant to search the phone those officers grabbed when you were arrested? Will a generic “based on my training and experience I know that information relating to the commission of crimes is often found on cellphones” type affidavit from a cop be enough?
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