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Don't Hide Your Gun in Your iPhone(?!)

Chris Conley,
Policy Attorney,
ACLU of Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Project
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January 5, 2011

(Originally posted on the ACLU of Northern California Blog.)

In a case with chilling privacy implications, the California Supreme Court recently held that police officers can search the entire contents of a cell phone whenever they arrest someone, no matter how small the suspected crime or how relevant the cell phone contents might be. Why? Because it’s just like a backpack, according to the Court, and previous cases have stated that backpacks can be searched “incident to arrest” without a warrant.

The problem, of course, is that cell phones and backpacks are very different. For one thing, it’s awfully hard to hide a weapon in a cell phone! It’s also awfully easy to keep someone from destroying evidence on a cell phone — just confiscate it and turn it off until you get a warrant to actually search it.

But the “big” difference is in size. Cell phones may be physically smaller than a backpack or even a wallet, but they are increasingly capable of holding our entire lives: emails from therapists, photos of intimate moments, calendars and contact lists showing what we do and who we do it with, and much more. And, again, yesterday’s decision means that the police can dig through all of this information, even if it’s irrelevant to the suspected crime!

As technology advances, privacy must not be left behind. That’s why we launched the Demand Your dotRights campaign: to fight this kind of intrusion into the intimate details of our private lives. And that’s why the U.S. and California Constitutions both have provisions that are designed to protect individuals from this kind of intrusion.

It’s too bad the California Supreme Court forgot that—so please join us and help remind them!

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