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
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.