All the Best Ways the Supreme Court Described Cell Phones While Defending Your Privacy

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Photo: DON EMMERT/2011 AFP

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of personal privacy today in two cases, Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, declaring, “The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.” In the decision, the justices — who are not exactly known for their technological skills — referred over and over again to the obsession most Americans have with their mobile devices, often in hilarious old-man terms. Basically, they concluded, we can’t live without our cell phones and they hold every valuable piece of information about our lives, so they deserve at least some degree of protection.

Here it is in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the decision, and his colleagues.

“Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day,” the Court said. “Today … it is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90% of American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives— from the mundane to the intimate,” i.e. sexting. 

How much do we love our phones? Let’s ask the aliens:

[…] modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.

And what are they capable of? Everything, pretty much (rolodexes, lol):

The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.

And what are these apps we’ve heard so much about?

Mobile application software on a cell phone, or “apps,” offer a range of tools for managing detailed information about all aspects of a person’s life. There are apps for Democratic Party news and Republican Party news; apps for alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions; apps for sharing prayer requests; apps for tracking pregnancy symptoms; apps for planning your budget; apps for every conceivable hobby or pastime; apps for improving your romantic life. There are popular apps for buying or selling just about anything, and the records of such transactions may be accessible on the phone indefinitely. There are over a million apps available in each of the two major app stores; the phrase “there’s an app for that” is now part of the popular lexicon. The average smart phone user has installed 33 apps, which together can form a revealing montage of the user’s life.

And don’t even get them started on “the cloud”:

[…] officers searching a phone’s data would not typically know whether the information they are viewing was stored locally at the time of the arrest or has been pulled from the cloud.

It’s just not the same as the old days, they ruled:

[…] the fact that a search in the pre-digital era could have turned up a photograph or two in a wallet does not justify a search of thousands of photos in a digital gallery. The fact that someone could have tucked a paper bank statement in a pocket does not justify a search of every bank statement from the last five years.

Sure, criminals use these magical mini-computers:

Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.

But it’s just pixels and cloud dust:

Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape. Officers may examine the phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one.

And it’s basically endless:

[…] data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.

Roberts concludes:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,” Boyd, supra , at 630. 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.

Teenagers everywhere, try this logic on your nosy parents.