Supreme Court Ruling Over Mobile Phone Searches May Really Be The First 'Internet Of Things' Ruling

from the scotus-iot dept

Advocates of digital privacy scored a major victory when the Supreme Court recently ruled that police need a warrant to search cellphones. In Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, two cases that pivot on the legality of searching personal computing devices, what is becoming a tech-centric high court recognized not only the pervasive role technology is playing in modern society, but also the growing personal data that exists as we digitize larger swaths of our everyday lives.

With this decision, the court confirmed what most of us have known for some time: modern cellphones are more than just a technological convenience or device for making phone calls, they're sophisticated "minicomputers" that hold for many of us "the privacies of life." The risks of harm to arresting officers or destruction of evidence do not exist when digital data is concerned. Rather, the justices said, searching the "vast quantities of personal information" on a smartphone is an invasion of privacy that far exceeds the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches of a person's physical property upon an arrest. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted, "a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form."

Fittingly, the opinion comes in a year when, according to Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) research, smartphone sales will eclipse 1 billion units for the first time ever. Today, nearly two-thirds of U.S. households own at least one smartphone, and that figure is projected to climb to 71 percent by 2017 as new manufacturers like Amazon and Blackphone enter the market. For many of us, our smartphones have become extensions of ourselves. They hold our favorite songs, house our favorite pictures and are home to the names and addresses of just about everyone we love -- even your background picture has a personal story to tell about you. Roberts was even more direct, noting cellphones are "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."

The court's opinion reveals an unwillingness, in this realm at least, to simply extend pre-digital precedents to new technologies -- especially when those extensions encroach on the fundamentals of our founders' views on liberty. The ruling follows the unanimous 2012 opinion in United States v. Jones that law enforcement's use of GPS-enabled devices to track suspects' vehicles is considered a search. In that case, the concurring opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor held that police needed a warrant in order to attach a GPS device to monitor movements by a suspect's car. The Court recognizes that the many capabilities of today's technological innovations continue to unfold. More, the technologically-infused life is still in its infancy. Smartphones that double as GPS devices are just the beginning. Soon, wearable technologies like activity trackers and health monitors could provide the government with our most personal data.

Traditionally, the court has held that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding information they show to third parties, so no warrant is required to obtain that information. But today's technology is eroding pragmatic limits on law enforcement's ability to track and trace us. Legal scholars believe that case planted a seed that could transform Fourth Amendment rights in light of modern technology.

In his opinion concurring with the court's decision on cellphone searches, Justice Samuel Alito noted the court is not in a position to evaluate the implications on privacy posed by searching cellphones, considering the amount of information about the lives of Americans that can be gleaned by the government and private entities, and the fact that many Americans are choosing to make so much information available to the public. He suggests that lawmakers are "in a better position… to assess and respond to the changes that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future" with legislation to govern the scope and limits of privacy rules involving modern technology. Regulators must take note of the vast ways in which technology will touch our lives in the future.

As technology enables the digitization of more elements of our lives, private information is becoming one of the key components in the market for developing devices that increase connectivity. The court's opinion is perhaps the strongest legal defense of privacy in a world dominated by technology. And it comes at just the right time, because it's not just our phones that are getting smart.

Soon, just about everything we touch will capture data about us. Our cars. Our watches. Our clothing. The fundamental privacies at stake in this ruling transcend far beyond phones. The Supreme Court needed to write its decision with the bigger picture in mind, and it did.

Ultimately, this ruling can arguably apply to the millions -- and eventually billions -- of physical objects that are being connected at an increasing clip to the Internet of Things. And whether the justices realized it or not, this court has now provided important privacy protections that will foster the continued, rapid technological growth our innovation economy demands.

Shawn DuBravac is the chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies. Follow Shawn on Twitter @Twoopinions.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    Mason Wheeler (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 4:30pm

    Soon, just about everything we touch will capture data about us. Our cars. Our watches. Our clothing.

    What's with all these people talking about watches lately? Especially in an article about smartphones. Has everyone missed the memo? The smartphone has made watches just as obsolete as cameras, Rolodexes, and alarm clocks. There's still a market for very high-end models as status symbols (Rolex watches) or exceptional quality (fancy cameras targeted at professional photographers,) but Joe Average Citizen today is never ever going to need to buy another one in his life, and his kids will probably not even know what they are, in much the same way as today's children don't know what a floppy disc is.

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 4:35pm

      Re:

      What's with all these people talking about watches lately? Especially in an article about smartphones. Has everyone missed the memo? The smartphone has made watches just as obsolete as cameras, Rolodexes, and alarm clocks. There's still a market for very high-end models as status symbols (Rolex watches) or exceptional quality (fancy cameras targeted at professional photographers,) but Joe Average Citizen today is never ever going to need to buy another one in his life, and his kids will probably not even know what they are, in much the same way as today's children don't know what a floppy disc is.

      Totally disagree. 100% disagree. I used to agree with you and hadn't worn a watch in years. And then I got the Pebble smartwatch and I'm a total convert. It makes my mobile phone so much better. I have sound (and even vibration) totally turned off on my phone and I mostly can leave it in my pocket. Important notifications show up on my watch and I can glance at them quickly without having to pull out my phone.

      Smartwatches have tremendous power to make phones more powerful while minimizing how often you have to pull it out and stare at the screen. The watch is a great form factor for making phones much more useful.

       

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        Mason Wheeler (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 5:28pm

        Re: Re:

        OK, I'm kind of confused here. What are you doing with your smartphone that you spend so much time "staring at the screen" or finding ways to reduce doing so?

        My smartphone is a tool, not a TV. I use it to make calls, send text messages, write up posts, etc, and a watch is useless for such tasks.

         

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          Mike Masnick (profile), Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 4:28pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          OK, I'm kind of confused here. What are you doing with your smartphone that you spend so much time "staring at the screen" or finding ways to reduce doing so?

          I don't. But it's been reduced. A few examples. I'm out with my son at the park and my wife text's me that I need to pick up some dinner on the way home. Under the old scenario, I'd have to (1) notice that my phone buzzed or beeped (2) stop playing with my son (3) pull my phone out (4) unlock the screen (5) read the message.

          The way it works now, she sends a text, and it alerts me on my watch. While playing with my son I can glance down at my watch, see the message and know that I have to pick up dinner.

          Once you begin to realize how powerful the instant and much easier notification is the more powerful it is. I never miss important messages now and I am less likely to have to be "interrupted" from doing something else to get those messages. It's a massive difference.

           

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      Tim Griffiths (profile), Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 2:08am

      Re:

      I get why this seems strange, we've spent the last decade working on converging devices to the point that we have replaced many of them with one tool, a smart phone, so why would we want to blow that back out?

      Well think of it this way, a watch on your wrist is still a better tool for telling the time than pulling out your phone however most of us tell the time using our phones. Why is that? The phone isn't the best way to tell the time but because the watch doesn't offer enough of an advantage to justify the redundancy a lot of us don't feel the need to wear one.

      Thing is that we can now network smart watches and have them act as companion devices to our phones. This means having a smart watch is not only a quicker and easier way to access the time but now also lots of other headline information we all rely on, phone notifications. It also allows for control of the device among other things. There's now a number of very good reasons to start wearing a watch but as an extension of your phone.

      We've been focused on convergent devices but the next step is, for lack of a better term, convergent networking. You can see this in things like the raise of "the cloud", the device is no longer as important as the service and so converging on one device is no longer key. Devices are becoming just a way of accessing our "back end" services and as such we can start looking at the most convenient ways to do that rather than the best way to fit all those services into something we can carry with us.

      Wearable tech is going to be the next stage of this and at some point the idea of carrying a single smartphone is going to seem as silly as you think the idea of wearing a watch is now.

       

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      Rich Kulawiec, Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 3:18am

      Re:

      Watches -- plain old ordinary dumb watches -- still have their uses, and I wear one every day. It doesn't rely on a battery, so it can't lose power. It has no data storage, so I don't have to worry about it being seized and uploaded. It can't be used to track me. It has no security vulnerabilities. It has a minimal number of active components, so it's reliable. It really is waterproof, not merely water-resistant, and yes I've put that to the test repeatedly. It will continue to work when I'm away from civilization for an hour, a day or a week.

      And it performs the one function that I need from it with sufficient accuracy, as it has for over twenty years. So why would I want to downgrade to a smartwatch?

       

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        art guerrilla (profile), Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 8:14am

        Re: Re:

        i'll one-up you:
        don't wear a watch, and never have...
        (don't like to wear jewelry of any kind)
        you know why ?
        1. there are 'things' all around us which have clocks embedded in them: computer, stove, micro, truck, bank sign, etc...
        2. there are lots of other nekkid apes around who wear watches, i ask them... they are proud to show off they have a watch...
        3. i apparently have an internal clock that functions fairly well, as i can 'guess' the time and be 'close enough' for most purposes... also, have the ability to set an internal 'alarm clock' such that i can wake up any time -within a couple minutes- without an actual alarm clock...
        it kind of weirds me out that i can do that, actually...

         

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    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 7:18pm

    Curmudgeon Here

    While I embrace technology, and earlier in life actually made an attempt to be current, not bleeding edge current, but maybe a year behind the bleeders. Then I realized the encroachment. The phone is a leash (how much one allows the leash is dependent upon whether the phone is provided by an employer or self supported, either business or personal) and how much myself and others allowed that leash to control the rest of our lives is what I found abhorrent. People call, no matter what I am doing, and interrupt what I am doing. Their decision, not mine.

    Take another case. One independent quick service restaurant close to a friends house, so it was used with some frequency. We called in our order, and walked the half block to pick it up some minutes later. Now this is a bit picky, but I come from the industry. There is only one line, no differentiation between folks there to place orders or those there to pick up. Putting a huge dent in the efficiency and courtesy in processing the line is the only cashier is responsible for answering the phone. Those of us who are there craving attention get ignored as the person on the phone (who is NOT there) gets all the attention.

    Not trying to pick on that restaurant, merely pointing out an effect of technology on courtesy. This restaurant is not alone amongst restaurants in displaying this discourtesy to their customers. There are others. And they display a severe lack of understanding about how to handle peak loads, which of course hurts their business, both through frustrated customers not returning and the reduction of sales because their process is so inefficient. Not to mention rude.

    The decision by the person answering the cellphone while in a conversation with others is a decision one has to make. Shall I be rude and answer this damn phone or shall I be courteous and excuse myself and go elsewhere to talk to someone not present, while interrupting the conversation of the present group. Which may or may not stop the conversation until a return.

    Sometimes, like in a business setting, there may be some actual urgency to that call, or in a family, with a child, there is actual urgency, and it is great that the technology exists for such situations. I have no such requirements, yet there seems to be a certain superiority to those that use the latest and greatest. Not all of them, but enough.

    I guess the above rant is about changes to etiquette that are going through a change process and the requirements are poorly distributed. I do not ken.

    I am impressed by the courts perspectives in this case, yet remain severely concerned about how they will treat issues like the NSA, and the secret conglomerate of specious reasoning that they claim as their legality.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 8:55am

      Re: Curmudgeon Here

      "People call, no matter what I am doing, and interrupt what I am doing. Their decision, not mine."

      But it's your decision to allow the interruption. You don't have to leave the ringer on your phone on, or even leave the phone itself on, if you don't wish to be disturbed. That's your decision, not theirs.

      "Those of us who are there craving attention get ignored as the person on the phone (who is NOT there) gets all the attention."

      Why are you blaming the phone for this instead of the obvious culprit: the restaurant?

      I don't see anything you said as an indictment of technology at all. It's an indictment of people being rude, and rude people are hardly a new thing.

       

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        Anonymous Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 12:15pm

        Re: Re: Curmudgeon Here

        An indictment of technology was not on my mind. The impact of technology on society was. The technology becoming mobile spreads behavior formerly associated with a particular location (where the landline or computer sat) to...well everywhere, and all the time. I can give up my phone, but that does not stop someone I am talking to from reaching for their phone on first notification of some incoming, effectively telling me that some unknown other is more important than I, and they don't even know who that is. This is becoming more ubiquitous and IMHO society is failing to maintain an appropriate level of courtesy in the process. Hence curmudgeon.

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 2:10pm

          Re: Re: Re: Curmudgeon Here

          Ah, I understand better.

          Still, I'm not sure your examples really illustrate the impact of technology on society, as the behaviors you describe have always been with us. Take, for example, the business about phone calls preempting in-person contact. This sort of thing happened frequently before phones even existed, only the thing that preempted contact was a "more important" person talking instead of a phone ringing.

          I'm typically amused by accusations that society is getting coarser (but not quite as much as accusations that today's youth are stupid thugs), because those exact same accusations (supported by pretty much exactly the same arguments) can be found in writings literally going back as far as writing goes.

          I think that the truth is close to: we are as we have always been.

           

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        Andrew D. Todd, Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 12:36pm

        The Rudeness Is The Bye-Product Of A Bottleneck (to John Fenderson, #10)

        In the case of the restaurant described by Curmudgeon, the issue is that the bottleneck is an order-taker who is an intermediary between diner and cook. There are systems in which the customer enters his order into the computer, and the cook is given a display of all the pending orders, so that he can easily manage his time. The new limiting factor would probably be the length of time which things took to cook. These systems are still at the level of corporate chains (eg. Sheetz), but they will eventually work their way down to local restaurants.

        To take a parallel example, I don't think that supermarket check-outs have been noticeably dehumanized by bar-code scanners. The tendency to pay by plastic does decrease human contact slightly. I find that I put my card in the slot, and enter my PIN number while the checker is busy bagging the groceries, whereas previously, we went through the ritual of handing over money.

        Years ago, when I lived in Philadelphia, I used to patronize a couple of of by-the-pound take-out buffets. There was a buffet table, with various stuff on it, sometimes cross-cuisine (eg. Chinese-Italian fusion). you took your plastic tray-dish, filled it up, and took it over to a computing scale at the cash register which indicated how much you owed. This system meant that it was unnecessary for the restaurant's employees to speak English.

         

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    Whatever (profile), Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 8:02pm

    laugh line

    what is becoming a tech-centric high court

    That is just about in total conflict with everything said about them here. Just go read the Aereo decision posts to see!

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 12:48pm

      Re: laugh line

      Even a gang of monkeys can occasionally hit typewriter keys and get three actual words in a row.

       

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    Anon, Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 7:23am

    Wow!

    Alito said something insightful and intelligent! That maybe lawmakers should get off their collective duff and come up with intelligent, meaningful laws that address modern life and technology, instead of waiting for SCOTUS to take a decade to twist antique laws to cover modern situations.

     

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    GEMont, Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 12:46pm

    A momentary setback...

    "Ultimately, this ruling can arguably apply to the millions -- and eventually billions -- of physical objects that are being connected at an increasing clip to the Internet of Things."

    Well then, the ruling will simply have to be reversed as soon as the NSA can get enough dirt on those who are in charge of reversing such things.

    At the very least, it will need to be "amended" enough to allow a loophole or two.

    Shouldn't take more than a few weeks at most....

     

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      That One Guy (profile), Jul 23rd, 2014 @ 2:18pm

      Re: A momentary setback...

      Nah, that's too much work, they'll just go to their pack of pet judges and get a classified 'interpretation' or 'exception' that allows them to continue on unchecked.

       

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