Data Security: US Supreme Court Says Warrants Needed For Cellphone Search.

According to the US Supreme Court, US authorities require warrants in order to search the cellphones of people who are arrested [ ; ].  The decision is not solely for cellphones, though: rummaging through information found on smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, etc. should also be affected, with personal privacy being the winner.

Also, I imagine it will affect the debate surrounding data encryption [ ; managed disk encryption ].  For example, there are a number of cases in the US where people under arrest were coerced into either giving up passwords to their encrypted data or to providing the encrypted data (sans giving up the password).  The argument went back and forth whether the Fourth Amendment applied.  The latest legal decision emphatically declares that, yes, indeed it does.

Cellphone is a Misnomer

In a 9-0 decision, the judges of the highest court in the United States of America have agreed that routinely searching through a person’s cellphone is unreasonable unless one has a warrant to do so.  Otherwise, it would be like allowing “British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity” – one of the reasons why the American Independence movement took place.  (It’s not lost on this blogger that the Fourth of July is next week).

Cellphones, Chief Justice Roberts noted, “could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers.”  Indeed, calling it a phone could very easily be a misnomer – something that hasn’t been lost on tech evangelists.  It’s been noted again and again that the modern cellphone – including feature phones like flip-phones – is not a portable phone: it’s a computer with a phone element attached to it; God knows that was true when it came to the first generation iPhone.

Law Enforcement Becomes More Difficult

The Court’s decision, the justices agreed, would make law enforcement more difficult.  However, it was noted that privacy has a price – and it’s my personal interpretation that the increased difficulty for “the law” to do its thing is what you pay for not repeating the actions that caused a revolt almost 250 years ago.

Plus, the same technology that aids criminals also aids law enforcement: warrants can be had in hand in 15 minutes using email.  It’s not a complete loss for the good guys.

Regarding the argument that there was a danger of evidence being destroyed remotely – a real danger.  The encryption software under AlertBoot management, for example, allows remote deletion – the court noted that “[t]he police may turn off a phone, remove its battery or place it in a bag made of aluminum foil.”

What Does this Mean for Encryption?

Although there has been a lot of controversy over the government going after suspects’ encrypted data, the truth is that the Justice Department never really pushed on the issue, probably knowing that it would be the beginning of the end.  In instances where a suspect landed in jail for not handing over a password or encrypted data, it was because they were defying a court order to do so (the court order, I assume, would have a similar effect to a warrant).

In other instances, the Justice Department resolved to legal jiu-jitsu, such as asking for the encrypted data without the suspect revealing their password (because, apparently, it encroached upon the idea of a password being like a combination to a safe, as opposed to being a physical key to a safe.  The former is protected, the latter is not).  Practices like these would have to be eliminated now.

All in all, I would say that this decision legitimizes the use of encryption by the public at large.  Any insinuations that “only those who have something to hide use encryption” are rejected as government flimflam, with the government having to prove that they’re not on a fishing expedition.

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