While over the last decade cellphone technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, the rules about searching them for evidence can still be archaic and confusing. There have been conflicting rulings on whether or not the data stored on a cellphone falls in the same category as other “pocket litter” found on a person and subject to search without warrant. Now the Supreme Court is setting out to make the distinction.

The Court announced its intention to review the current rules Jan. 17, using two opposite appellate rulings as arguments for and against warrantless cellphone searched. A court in Boston ruled that the information on a cellphone is potentially so private that it’s categorically different than the other items found on a person. But a California court disagreed, saying that by virtue of being on a person at the time of arrest it could be searched.

“The storage capacity of today’s cellphones is immense. Apple’s iPhone 5 comes with up to sixty-four gigabytes of storage,” which typically contains such “highly personal” information as “photographs, videos, written and audio messages (text, email, and voicemail), contacts, calendar appointments, Web search and browsing history, purchases, and financial and medical records,” U.S. Circuit Judge Norman Stahl, writing for the appeals court said. “It is the kind of information one would previously have stored in one’s home and that would have been off-limits to officers performing a search incident to arrest.”

The amount of personal information that a phone can carry has exploded with the advent of larger storage and computing power. What was once a device capable of storing only contacts and text messages has become a full-fledged computer carrying videos, photographs, financial information and even health records.  The review will hopefully bring law surrounding the warrantless search of cellphones into the 21st century.

A Supreme Court ruling is expected by June 2014.


For more on data privacy, check out these stories:

Privacy, data and different jurisdictions: Examining differing requirements across the U.S.

NSA phone surveillance could be headed to the country’s highest courts

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