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Supreme Court Protects Portable Electronics From Warrantless Search in Sweeping Ruling

Today the Supreme Court issued a sweeping ruling in the case of Riley v. California, holding unanimously that search of cell phones incident to arrest generally requires a warrant.

“The Court today told Americans that the digital information contained in their cellphones is entitled to protection from warrantless government intrusion,” said CDT President Nuala O’Connor.  “This unanimous ruling is a tremendous victory for privacy rights,” O’Connor stated.  “The Court clearly recognizes the impact that modern technology is having on our daily lives, and the importance of applying Fourth Amendment protections in a digital age.  As technology rapidly evolves, the law must also evolve to ensure that our most basic rights are protected as they have been in the past,” O’Connor added.

CDT filed a joint amicus brief with EFF in the case, highlighting the prevalent use of smartphones and other portable electronic devices, and the amount of sensitive information they contain. The Supreme Court ruling cites directly to the CDT/EFF amicus brief, and the Court’s analysis closely tracks that of our brief – particularly with regard to the description of smartphones’ capabilities, which is key to the argument that smartphones deserve warrant protection from government searches.

Read CDT’s amicus brief to the Supreme Court.

The Court stressed that digital data is qualitatively different from physical objects normally seized in a search incident to arrest.  It found that “an individual’s private life can be reconstructed” from information found on a cell phone, including photographs, text messages, and search and browsing histories.

“If the Fourth Amendment is to have real meaning in the digital age, then it’s time for privacy rules that recognize that the digital information we all now carry with us every day is both extensive and sensitive,” said CDT Vice President Jim Dempsey. “This Supreme Court decision is a clear step in that direction, but Fourth Amendment privacy protection must be strengthened for personal information in other areas too.  CDT calls on Congress to update the Electronic Communication Privacy Act to provide warrant protection for personal data stored in the cloud as well.”