Last year, Geico released a YouTube commercial that would drive the civil liberties crowd crazy. When the Geico pig gets pulled over by a cop, he hands the officer his unlocked phone to show him his e-insurance card. Given all of the sensitive, and potentially incriminating, material to be found in our phones, privacy advocates would say not only should you not ever hand your phone over to law enforcement, they should need a warrant to take a look at it.
The law around that however has been murky. In some states, courts have said that police officers need a warrant to look at a phone when stopping or arresting someone; in other states, courts have given a green light to snoopy officers. We created a multi-colored map here at Forbes last summer to serve as a guide to the law in different states, and predicted that the Supreme Court would be forced to weigh in on the issue to settle the question once and for all. On Friday, the Court announced that it would be doing so, agreeing to hear two cases where judges came to different conclusions on how much privacy our phones deserve.
In U.S. v. Wurie, the First Circuit ruled that the police shouldn’t have searched a Boston man’s phone without a warrant after they saw him engaged in a drug sale in a car. In Riley v. California, a California appeals court decided that police had the right to search a San Diego college student’s Samsung smartphone after he was pulled over for driving a Lexus with expired tags that had guns concealed inside. In both cases, photos on the phones tipped police off to the defendants’ criminal activity. But the Wurie evidence was thrown out by judges who said police should have gotten a warrant to search the phone, whereas the Riley evidence was allowed to stand by judges who said police should have the right to search “the physical contents of ordinary containers incident to arrest.” In the past, that meant police could look through a bag, or box, or a pack of cigarettes on your person, but in the age of the smartphone, it means they could look through your whole life based on emails, contacts, videos and photos.
Now the Supremes get to settle the legal battle. It’s yet another in a line of privacy cases to come before the court where they must reassess existing law in light of new technologies. The most recent was U.S. v Jones, in which the court struck a blow to government surveillance, ruling that police need warrants to put GPS trackers on people’s cars.