Landmark Ruling Protects Cell Phone Privacy

Earlier this year, we questioned the future of cell phone security here on the blog. Specifically, it was being debated whether police should have the right to search a suspect's cell phone without a warrant permitting them to do so. Last week, this issue went to the U.S. Supreme Court and they unanimously decided: from now on, warrants will be required if a police officer wishes to search a cell phone.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the decision, which stated that warrantless cell phone searches would violate the Fourth Amendment. This is a landmark ruling for Americans' privacy rights as they transform with the growing pervasiveness of technology in our every day lives. As more and more Americans carry smart phones, they in essence carry much of their lives and identities with them at all times. As written in Roberts' opinion, cell phones today "could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers…"and this doesn't even cover everything. Truly, a police officer could learn more about a crime suspect through a thorough search of his smart phone than he would in a search of his home.

This decision specifically adds dimension to an earlier ruling made in 1973. In United States v. Robinson, the Supreme Court decided that police would be allowed to complete--without the need for a warrant--pat-down searches of an arrestee that could include the physical objects he had on his person. Given how clearly different (and how much more revealing) cell phones are today from anything that a person might have carried in 1973, it is only appropriate that this ruling is finally being updated.

While this is a great battle won for more cell phone security for citizens, the war may not be over. The Tribune reported a piece shortly after last's week decision that noticed something was missing: cell phone data tracking. Another topic we've explored here before, it seems possible that cell site simulators (which could be tracking cell phone locations, call logs, and even text messages, without the affected owners' knowledge) are being used in secret by the city. Last week's decision does at least offer hope that this issue could be next in the realm of privacy concerns, however. Matthew Topic—one lawyer who is working on a lawsuit against the city for hiding the use of cell phone tracking technology—says of the recent news: "I would like to believe the Chicago Police Department doesn't want to engage in wholesale Fourth Amendment violations…I hope they would read the ruling and take a hard look at their procedures." The Supreme Court has chosen to protect our privacy. Hopefully, Chicago will follow suit.

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