Saturday, March 7, 2015

Bigger court, better outcome, Land of the Freest

 The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police must obtain warrants before snooping through people’s cellphones, delivering a unanimous decision that begins to update legal understanding of privacy rules to accommodate 21st-century technology.

Police agencies argued that searching through data on cellphones was no different from asking someone to turn out his pockets, but the justices rejected that, saying a cellphone holds the most personal and intimate details of someone’s life and falls squarely within the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections.

“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,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the unanimous opinion. “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.”

...Legal analysts said the ruling will change the way police operate but predicted investigators will adjust.

Privacy advocates, meanwhile, said the ruling should ignite a broader rethinking of protections at a time when Americans are putting more personal information online.

...Complicating matters further is the question of where the information is stored. The Obama administration and the state of California, both of which sought to justify cellphone searches, acknowledged that remotely stored data couldn’t be searched. Chief Justice Roberts said with cloud computing, it’s sometimes impossible to know the difference.

The court did carve out exceptions for “exigencies” such as major security threats.


On Monday night, Alain Philippon, a Canadian citizen, was passing through customs at a Nova Scotia airport when border patrol officers demanded that he provide the password to his smartphone. Philippon refused.

He was promptly charged with obstructing border security, a criminal charge under the Canadian Customs Act, which he plans to fight in court. Philippon’s legal battle against this absurd abuse of power is principled and important. It is also probably futile. Canada’s laws surrounding search and seizure are flimsy, malleable, and—by American standards—draconian.


With so much potentially incriminating evidence available to the police, you might think that there would be privacy protection in place to stop authorities probing your handset – but you’d be wrong.

According to legal experts, police have wide-ranging powers to search mobile phones providing they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime may have been committed. Once inside a handset, they could well stumble across other evidence, which could also be used in court.

“The baseline rule has to be that there is a reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed for a phone to be inspected and to do an on-the-spot search,” said Tracey Stretton, legal consultant for data-recovery specialist Kroll Ontrack. “If you see a man after a car accident, you wouldn’t need a warrant because you could have a reasonable suspicion that a traffic offence had been committed.

“If you’re looking into one crime and find something else on the phone, then I guess the police would follow that line of inquiry. They wouldn’t stop to get a warrant because they now have suspicion of a further offence.”


All emphasis mine.

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