Skip to main content

The Supreme Court Says, "There's an App For That," in Ruling For Cell Phone Privacy

The Supreme Court hands privacy advocates a huge victory while alluding to all of the potentially embarrassing things that can be found on a cell phone.

As much as we like to complain about the U.S. Supreme Court sometimes, believe it or not they do have the ability to nail a case. On Wednesday, SCOTUS handed down a unanimous decision deeming that law enforcement cannot search the data on an arrestee's cell phone without a warrant. Given the relative newness of cell phone technology, courts have been slowly but surely forging uncharted juridical territory by applying an 18th century Bill of Rights to 21st century digital technologies. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts minced no words:

"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans "the privacies of life." The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple -- get a warrant."

As it turns out, among the technologies that featured prominently in the court's decision were WebMD:

"Although the data stored on a cell phone is distinguished from physical records by quantity alone, certain types of data are qualitatively different. An Internet search and browsing history, for example, can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual's private interests or concerns -- perhaps a search for symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD."

The court was actually dealing with two cell phone privacy cases: Riley v. California, where police searched an arrestee's smart phone photos and found evidence of gang activity and a shooting for which he was subsequently charged; and U.S. v. Wurie, where police found drugs in a house they located by accessing the call log on a suspect's flip phone. In both instances, the cell phone searches were performed without a warrant.

After recoiling at the thought of police officers finding medical-related searches of god knows what in a person's phone, the court considered other sensitive information that might be revealed in a search of a cell phone:

"Mobile application software on a cell phone, or "apps," offer a range of tools for managing detailed information about all aspects of a person's life. There are apps for Democratic Party news and Republican Party news; apps for alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions; apps for sharing prayer requests; apps for tracking pregnancy symptoms; apps for planning your budget; apps for every conceivable hobby or pastime; apps for improving your romantic life. There are popular apps for buying or selling just about anything, and the records of such transactions may be accessible on the phone indefinitely. There are over a million apps available in each of the two major app stores; the phrase "there's an app for that" is now part of the popular lexicon."

Yes, "There's an app for that" is now part of the official jurisprudence of the nation's highest court.

Damn you, Apple.