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Privacy on the line

25 June 2014 By Reynolds Holding

The U.S. Supreme Court has gotten the message on smartphone privacy. The tribunal ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the devices contain so much personal data that police can’t search them without a warrant. It’s a huge victory for individual rights in an era of ubiquitous snooping.

Smartphones are so common that “the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his opinion. There are almost 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide, according to United Nations data, and more than 90 percent of American adults own cellphones.

It’s the content of those devices that worried the court. Cops usually need a warrant to search property. Getting one requires persuading a judge they’ll probably find incriminating evidence. But if you’re arrested, police can rummage warrant-free through anything on or near you, like a wallet. Smartphones contain vastly more information and can betray personal secrets. That data deserves a higher level of protection, the justices said.

There are exceptions for emergencies involving, say, the search for a lost child or a terrorist planning an imminent attack. But the ruling was broad enough to cover information about a smartphone owner’s location and data stored remotely in the so-called cloud.

The Supreme Court has proven remarkably attuned to the risks of technological innovation. Two years ago, for example, it limited law enforcement’s use of satellite-linked GPS to track a suspect’s car.

Beyond criminal justice, the nation’s nine top judges have cracked down on obvious, unclear and overly broad patents, which can stifle innovation and feed litigation. In a decision last week, they echoed electric-car entrepreneur and Tesla boss Elon Musk in opening up certain software patents. And though they quashed online video startup Aereo in a second ruling on Wednesday, they avoided damaging the prospects for more TV disruption.

The court has taken its lumps for sometimes sounding like a collection of Luddites. Yet the justices’ experience with a wide range of issues allows them to navigate complexity and, more often than not, arrive at the correct answer. That’s a skill they’ll need as they face increasingly thorny issues of privacy. For a bunch of graying jurists, they’re awfully good at defying doubts about their technological chops.


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