In August, 2013, I blogged about an insurance company’s latest product feature that enabled their customers to download all of their insurance verification documents to their cellphone through a software application. The marketing company devised a commercial whereby a pig driving a car was pulled over, and subsequently the pig handed his cellphone over to the officer, presumably to show the officer that he had insurance information (I didn’t make this up). At that time, I suggested there would be significant unintended consequences to people who turned over their cellphone to a police agency.
In a unanimous decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that police officers need a search warrant to search cellphones of individuals arrested. This decision would likely apply to tablets and laptop computers, as well as potentially searches of homes and businesses and information held by third parties, like phone companies or cloud providers. Chief Justice John G. Roberts stated that cellphones are “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.” What’s more interesting is that, in writing for the majority of the Court, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledges the fact that cellphones are more than a device that you merely speak into and listen – a truly forward thinking statement for such a traditional body of government.
When looking at this in the context of the insurance company’s phone app product, there still are significant unintended consequences that people need to be made aware. Namely, while the new law prohibits warrantless searches of cellphones, relinquishment of a cellphone to a police agency is still not advisable. They can simply confiscate the device, and then go get a warrant to search it at a later date.