Digital privacy: is your mobile phone data safe?

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With the ever changing digital landscape, a primary concern for many people is ensuring personal privacy. Mobile phones can now hold very sensitive and private data, such as banking details, contacts, notes, calendar activity and emails. While there is added in-built security measures to keep this data safe, concerns have been raised that a mobile phone might actually provide more insight into a person than any other object typically found on a person.

Much like in Australia, if police officers in America have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they could search a person and the belongings on their person without a warrant, including mobile phones – until now.

On June 25 2014 the American Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police officers must now have warrants to search suspects’ mobile phones when they are arrested. The justices based the ruling on the premise that mobile phones contain so much information about a person’s private life and are a ‘pervasive and insistent part of daily life’, and as such deserve special protection.

Prior to this decision, police departments and the US Government relied on a Supreme Court precedent, which ruled that police officers could empty a suspect’s pockets and examine the contents, preventing evidence from being destroyed.

However, the new ruling focussed on the fact that you cannot compare a mobile phone to other items found in people’s pockets, such as a packet of cigarettes or a wallet.

Throughout the decision process, the court cited a precedent that found a difference between asking someone to turn out their pockets versus ransacking their house for everything which may incriminate him, to which the court found a mobile phone fell into the second category.

In an article that featured in the Washington Times, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry so much 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.”

In reaching this ruling, the US Government put forth the argument that the data on a mobile phone is essentially the same as searching the physical objects found in a suspect’s pocket, but the Supreme Court rejected this notion. Another argument put forward was that police officers needed to search a phone quickly to prevent the suspect from wiping evidence. However, the Chief Justice ruled that this threat wasn’t a common occurrence and that in cases where there was a real risk of this happening, the police could search the phone, but this should be the exception and not the rule.

The Chief Justice admitted the ruling would impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime, but added that privacy comes at a cost.

Not only is this a big step for digital privacy, but it also raises questions about how this decision will ripple across the globe and impact legislation in other countries.

You can find the full decision here. http://www.scribd.com/doc/231282084/RILEY-v-CALIFORNIA

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