Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in two cases that will decide the extent law enforcement officers can search a person’s cell phone after an arrest. I have written about this issue before, and about how much sensitive data most people keep on their cell phones. Once the Court issues its ruling, we will know where whether our cell phones are really private.
People put embarrassing and deeply personal information on their cell phones, but most data files do not relate to criminal acts. The couple depicted in the commercial below probably would not want anyone looking through their cell phones. If the Court allows it, police departments will routinely copy all the information from seized cell phones and upload it to a database for permanent storage. Government officials could peruse the data whenever it suits them.
The capabilities of cell phones allow for nearly unlimited personal information to be stored. Some smartphones now hold 64 gigabytes of data. Right now, phones have enough space to store thousands of personal emails, pictures, videos, and text messages simultaneously, and data storage capacity increases each successive year.
If the Court rules that an arrest does not necessarily justify a search of a suspect’s phone, the police will still have the option to request a warrant. With electronic warrants, it is possible to issue a search warrant within a couple of minutes. The importance of this is that you have a neutral judge deciding whether there is probable cause to search the phone. Otherwise, we will have police officers fishing for evidence for each person they arrest, and the private lives of everyone will be a little less private.