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Supreme Court ruling affirms the astonishing power of smartphones

Wednesday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling – that officers must obtain warrants in order to search cellphones obtained during the course of arrests – shows the justices’ profound understanding of the way these ubiquitous little devices have practically become appendages of the human body.

Chief Justice John R. Roberts even got a little carried away with that metaphor when he wrote in his entertaining opinion that modern cellphones “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

Giving police the ability to search a cellphone without a warrant, the court said, is as offensive as the intrusions that led the birth of this country and the creation of its Constitution.

The 4th Amendment, with its protection against unreasonable searches, Roberts said, “was the founding generation’s response to the reviled ‘general warrants’ and ‘writs of assistance’ of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity. Opposition to such searches was in fact one of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself.”

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As the chief justice noted, today’s smartphones are not “just another technological convenience.” They are indispensable repositories for exceedingly private details about an individual’s life.

(How indispensable? He cited one poll in which 3/4 of phone owners said they were never more than five feet away from their devices, while 12% admitted bringing their phones into the shower with them. That is an image I could have done without.)

You can actually learn more about a person by examining their phone, Roberts said, than you can in “the most exhaustive search” of a house.

“A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form,” he wrote -- unless a smartphone is also found in the home.

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Giving police officers access to a person’s apps — Roberts said the average user has 33 — gives them the ability to create “a revealing montage” of a subject’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,” he wrote. “There are popular apps for buying or selling just about anything, and the records of such transactions may be accessible on the phone indefinitely.the phrase, ‘there’s an app for that’ is now part of the popular lexicon.”

(Someone ought to create an app that produces a psychological profile based on the apps a person has downloaded. Why? I have no idea. But I also have no idea why I play Fruit Ninja.)

The court recognized that its ruling may impose a burden on law enforcement officers at the time of an arrest. But, as Roberts pointed out, technological advances cut both ways.

In some jurisdictions, he said, police officers can email warrant requests to judges’ iPads, and judges, for their part, have been known to sign warrants and email them back to officers in less than 15 minutes.

I will not violate your privacy if you follow me on Twitter: @robinabcarian


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