The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision may have garnered the most press coverage and debate of its recent cases. But before that, the Court handed down another very important decision on privacy rights.
In Riley v. California, the Court voted 9-0 that police must have a warrant to search a person’s mobile phone. This is significant for two reasons.
The first is that this could be a turning point in the legal battle over digital privacy rights. Most legal challenges to surveillance and data collection have so far been fruitless. Just this March, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the controversial NSA programs don’t violate the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure. So a ruling upholding privacy rights, and a unanimous ruling at that, is something of a surprise.
The second reason this is a big deal is more obvious: it’s a victory for Fourth Amendment rights. And it comes at a very good time.
This summer Chicago is installing devices in certain areas that will track, among other things, the number of people in the area by scanning their mobile phones for a signal. Proponents of the project, dubbed the “Array of Things,” insist that these won’t actually mine data from phones, and the devices’ findings will also be publicly available for anyone to see, giving the whole thing a certain aura of transparency. But there’s no way around the perception that the city could use it to spy on residents, whether true or not.
Or consider the Stingray, used by several law enforcement agencies to track cell phones (according to the ACLU, both Illinois and Indiana forces use them). Here’s a very good and detailed overview of how it works, but in short, it can track your location and data from your phone. Dubious, but apparently legal.
Stingrays have been in use for nearly a decade, before Array of Things, before Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations. However, the technology does not give police the ability to read texts or listen in on calls. Now, in addition to the technological limit, the Riley ruling draws a legal line protecting mobile owners from search and seizure without a warrant.
The case is likely only the first of many on issues related to digital privacy, but the importance of what it does and what it may signify should not be understated.