In a unanimous 9-0 decision on Wednesday, the Supreme Court determined that private data on cellphones cannot be obtained without a search warrant. The justices wisely ruled that digital information is subject to the same Fourth Amendment protections afforded to the “papers and effects” that are specifically protected against “unreasonable searches and seizures” in the text of the Constitution.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his decision, “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.”
This comes as a welcome development in an era where the federal government has expanded its digital reach beyond traditionally accepted boundaries of privacy.
It’s disappointing that the Justice Department fought against this decision. Obama administration law enforcement officials had argued that cellphones were not materially different from any other personal effects found on a suspect at the time they are arrested. But with unanimity, the decision demonstrates the clear and compelling need for modern applications of Fourth Amendment principles. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, [cellphones] hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’ ” wrote Roberts.
Technology has given the government a near-limitless capacity to snoop into almost every aspect of our lives, and the National Security Agency has done everything in its power to push the envelope of what constitutes an acceptable level of intrusion.
Its warrantless surveillance has collected more information than any human being could review in a lifetime, and it has gone to great lengths to protect its power to do so — even going so far as to mislead Congress about the extent of its activities. It insists that such measures are necessary to maintain public safety, but the public is rightly concerned that too much privacy is being sacrificed in the process.
The justices acknowledged that inherent tension in their decision. “We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts wrote. “Privacy comes at a cost.”
Indeed it does. But it is vital to weigh conflicting needs and satisfy the constitutional imperative against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The decision is a first step to restoring a balance that has been going too far in one direction.