In a unanimous ruling yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer must obtain a warrant to search a cell phone. This will likely apply to computer and tablet searches as well, and acknowledges that a phone these days is far more like a file cabinet in a home, which historically cannot searched without a warrant, than a wallet, which can.
The court had looked at two cases, Riley v. California, in which officers searched a cell phone during a traffic stop and found information on the phone that connected the phone's owner to gang activity, and United States v. Wurie, in which information on the phone led the police to an apartment that was searched and found to contain drugs and a weapon.
The Justice Department, defending warrantless searches of cell phones, had argued that evidence on a phone could be destroyed remotely, were officers to wait to obtain a warrant to conduct the search. Preventing such destruction, however, can be as simple as switching a phone into airplane mode or slipping it into a Faraday bag, and these precautions are well understood by the law enforcement community.
Digital privacy advocates are relieved. Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that filed briefs in the two cell phone search cases considered by the Supreme Court, stated yesterday that “these decisions are huge for digital privacy.”
“The court,” Fakhoury said, “recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection and cannot be searched at a police officer’s whim.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.