Supreme Court Rules Warrantless Cell Phone Data Search And Tracking Illegal

Today, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on data privacy, holding 9-0 that neither police officers nor federal law enforcement have a unilateral right to search cell phones without first procuring a warrant. Prior to today, the government had previously argued that the police could search a cell phone under previous court rulings that extended such rights in limited cases, including incidents where the officers on the scene had reason to believe evidence could be destroyed or that the evidence was on the individual (or within arms' reach).

What the Court recognized today is that a cell phone is something unique from a pack of cigarettes or a glove compartment that might contain a firearm. Not only are the contents of a cell phone potentially far more personal than the typical contents of a purse, the fact that everyone carries cell phones these days is a fundamental shift from previous decades. The Court notes: "Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day. Now it is the person who is not carrying a cellphone, with all that it contains, who is the exception."

Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow invasion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone's capacity allows just even just one type of information to reveal far more than previously possible. Third, data on a phone can date back for years.
This is a critically important decision because it illustrates that the Supreme Court actually understands many of the issues swirling around privacy and digital data. By expanding the right to privacy in this way, the Court may have inadvertently given a boost to some of the NSA-blocking efforts. If warrantless searches are illegal due to the specific, long-lasting, and particular nature of the search, it may give privacy advocates another lever in the long-term attempt to push back the encroachment of the NSA.

The current court doesn't agree on much -- but it came together 9-0 on cell phone privacy

This is the second case in which the Supreme Court has struck at police practices that rely on invading citizen privacy; the first involved the use of a GPS tracking device to monitor a vehicle for 28 days without a warrant. We've already seen repeated cases in which cops have used stingray cell phone towers to track and determine the location of suspected criminals -- hopefully this kind of decision makes it easier to ban the use of stingray devices without the use of warrants. One of the facts the Supreme Court hammered in its decision is that this case doesn't make a cell phone's immune to searches -- it just requires the police to treat them the same way they'd treat a home search and to hop through the necessary hoops.