The Supreme Court last week unanimously ruled that a cellphone is akin to one’s house; police need a warrant to search either.
The ruling makes intuitive sense to anybody with even a minimal knowledge of the Fourth Amendment’s limitations on police rights to search and seize. Americans increasingly store their lives on their mobile devices. If the police cannot rifle through a locked file drawer on a whim, they cannot do so with an iPhone.
Still, it’s a rare occasion when even Justice Samuel Alito votes to constrain police. The unanimity of the ruling in Riley v. United States, and the emphatic wording of the majority opinion (written by Chief Justice John Roberts) leaves little doubt of how certain the court is in this case.
Which raises the issue of how far the court wishes to go in protecting online privacy, particularly regarding the National Security Agency’s gathering of metadata and other online information.
The judicial system has largely abandoned the field when it comes to counterterrorism. From all indications, even when the so-called secret spy court’s orders are ignored or its limits exceeded, it has done nothing. The spy agencies have been left to do as they will.
One struggles to grasp how it’s illegal for police to pull your email address collection from your smartphone without a warrant but permissible to gather that same information off the cellphone towers.
The court may still continue to defer to the spy agencies on this; judges are historically reluctant to interfere on matters of national security. But the ruling in Riley certainly signals a possible shift.
The NSA revelations of the past year or so have undermined the spy agencies’ standing with Congress and the general public. Perhaps that has carried over to the judicial branch as well. We can hope.