Supreme Court of the US on cell phone searches: get a warrant

By EDRi · July 2, 2014

In the court case Riley vs California, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) affirmed on 25 June what many digital rights activists have been telling a long time: Our mobile phones, especially smartphones, have become such an extension of ourselves that warrantless searches of them violate fundamental rights.

Not only that, SCOTUS was unanimous on the issue, which is not common for the usually controversial questions that wind up on the Supreme Court’s plate. While this is not a European court case, core concepts of SCOTUS jurisprudence sometimes wind up in Europe as well, for example the so-called Miranda rights were widely copied in European countries. The SCOTUS opinion in Riley vs California is well worth reading since it de facto puts an end to the mantra that rules applying to the material world should automatically and unthinkingly apply to digital issues.

A few most interesting quotes from the ruling:

“A conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved. Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person. Notably, modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos.”

“The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server. Thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an arrestee, a concern that the United States recognizes but cannot definitively foreclose”

The ruling puts the last quotation squarely in the context of cloud computing, and it will be interesting to see how this will affect future expected rulings on the US Government position that data held by third parties cannot fall within Fourth Amendment protections. This ruling may very well be a first stepping stone to the long overdue curbing of US law enforcement and intelligence services alike when it comes to online surveillance.

As SCOTUS jurisprudence on “effects” as meant by the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution had been sorely missing in the digital age, this is a major step forward for digital rights in the USA.

SCOTUS ruling Riley vs California (25.06.2014)

SCOTUS Blog: Riley v. California

(Contribution by Walter van Holst, EDRi member Vrijschrift, Netherlands)