POSTED BY JOHN CASSIDY
It’s not so often these days that I write anything favorable about the Supreme Court. But here’s a quick shout-out to Wednesday’s ruling from the Justices, a unanimous one, that the police need a warrant to search the cell phone, or other digital device, of a person they arrest. For once, John Roberts, who wrote the decision, and all of his colleagues appear to be on the right side of history.
Last year, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, and the broader concerns about the tracking activities of companies like Facebook and Google, it was widely agreed that we needed to have a vigorous public debate about privacy rights, and how, and where, they should be extended to the digital age. (I was one of those who justified Snowden’s leaks partly on these grounds.) Of course, it’s lot easier to call for a debate than it is to resolve one. How far should spying agencies be allowed to monitor the communications of American citizens who aren’t suspected of terrorist activity? How much information about your online activities should Internet companies be allowed to share with advertisers? Is it O.K. for auto companies to install in vehicles G.P.S. technology that tracks your every movement, and then retain this information?
The Supreme Court ruling, which arose from the 2009 case of a California man, David Riley, who was arrested after police stopped his car and discovered firearms in it, didn’t directly answer any of these questions. (A couple of years ago, in the case of the United States v. Jones, the Court did place limits on the police installing tracking devices on cars; it didn’t address the broader issue.) However, the decision in Riley v. California clearly stated that the right to privacy, and in particular the right, in the words of the Fourth Amendment, “of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” covers cell phones and other digital gadgets that people use to communicate and organize their lives. And the ruling didn’t just pertain to the information that is stored on digital devices, such as photographs and telephone numbers. It also covered personal information that is stored remotely—in “the cloud”—and which people use their cell phones to access.