Smartphones personal enough to warrant privacy protections: SCOTUS

26 Jun 2014

ITEM: The US Supreme Court (a.k.a. SCOTUS) has ruled in a unanimous decision that the police can’t search the contents of a cellphone without a warrant.

You can read the details (in non-legalese) at SCOTUSblog.

Obviously it’s a US-centric ruling that has no legal bearing in Asia, but it’s worth passing on here because the ruling shows not only how far cellphones have evolved, but also the growing recognition that digital privacy matters, and how far behind that sentiment many governments and law enforcement agencies are.

For a long time now, the mobile industry has been touting the fact that a cellphone is the one item that’s always with you. And as cellphones have become smarter, they store all kinds of personal data about us. Whether that data is stored onboard or in the cloud, your phone or tablet is now the centerpiece of your digital footprint. For a growing number of people, it's the only device they use for generating and accessing that footprint. The GSM Association and other industry groups promote this concept all the time, and are working 24/7 to develop it further and build out a massive ecosystem to support it.

The privacy implications of this are staggering. Losing your phone doesn’t just mean losing whatever data is stored on it – it means someone else could get access to it. That’s bad enough if the phone is for personal use – if you use it in a BYOD scenario at work, it becomes a security nightmare for CIOs.

Meanwhile, in the US, law enforcement agencies see smartphones as a potential wealth of evidence against suspects, and until now there have been very few legal barriers against the police sifting through you phone, depending on the jurisdiction.

Some law enforcement agencies do more than just look – they download the entire contents of phones (sometimes with warrants or consent of the owner, sometimes not) and store it. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a centralized database full of cellphone data that’s stored for years.

(This sort of thing isn't confined to the US, by the way. London’s Metropolitan Police now extract cell phone data without a warrant – even if you’re not actually charged with anything.)

So it’s encouraging that SCOTUS has officially recognized the privacy implications of smart devices, if only because – as is likely – the justices are presumably smartphone users themselves.

SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe explains:

To demonstrate how cellphones differ from other items that you might be carrying in your pocket, the Court chronicled, in some detail, the many functions of cellphones – as “cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers” – and emphasized their “immense storage capacity.” Having all of this information stored in one place, the Court explained, collectively provides much more information about our lives than, say, a calendar or camera would, standing alone. In fact, the Court posited, because of the different kinds of data that can be stored on a cellphone, searching a cellphone could provide police with even more information about your life than they could get from searching your home.

Obviously the ruling doesn't apply outside the US. But the privacy issues at the center of the case are similar everywhere, and even governments who are being proactive in formulating digital privacy regulations are already behind the times for things like Big Data.

Ironically, as more content moves to the cloud, the physical device may become irrelevant to the privacy discussion. But that’s still some time away, so users should be afforded whatever protections they can get now.

BONUS TRACK: Meanwhile, as a matter of interest – and because people have been asking me about it all day – SCOTUS also declared OTT television service Aereo illegal. But the decision is limited to Aereo’s specific business model (which was found to infringe US copyright law), and doesn’t affect US-based OTT services or even cloud-based DVR/locker services that operate in Asia. If you're interested, you can read the “plain English” assessment of that ruling here.

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