Editorial, Opinion

EDIT: Cellphone privacy

The issue of whether and when authorities can search suspects’ cellphones will receive attention from the U.S. Senate on Thursday, according to an article in The New York Times Sunday.

A Senate committee will consider changes to the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, a law that regulates government’s surveillance of digital communications. In the past, courts have used the law to survey cellphone data without warrants, according to the Times. Courts have long been divided on the issue of cellphone privacy. A court in Washington said that text messages should be treated like voice messages, “something that can be overheard by anyone in a room and are therefore not protected by state privacy laws,” according to the Times. However, in September a Rhode Island judge threw out cellphone evidence in a murder case because it was obtained without a search warrant.

As personal devices, cellphones should require search warrants. They contain massive amounts of data, from one’s location to text messages to Facebook posts and tweets. It seems unreasonable that the police are able to search a device that holds so much information without a warrant.

Just as the police would not tap someone’s phone without a warrant, they should not able to review someone’s cellphone messages without one. The right to privacy, as implied by the Fifth Amendment and other clauses within the Bill of Rights, should extend to the technology we use to store information today.

However, certain situations make the cellphone privacy issue less clear. For instance, if someone is driving recklessly and is pulled over, should the police able to search the driver’s phone then and there to determine whether or not he or she was texting and driving? Reckless driving and other offenses give the police probable cause to pull the driver over. In this case, it seems reasonable that the police then be able to search the driver’s phone.

Then again, what if that cellphone were contained in the driver’s pocket? Searching a cellphone that the driver had in his or her pocket seems more intrusive than searching a phone that was displayed on the dashboard. If the phone is not clearly displayed, a search without a warrant becomes unreasonable.

It will be interesting to see how the Senate addresses the cellphone privacy issue. Requiring a warrant for cellphone surveillance upholds the right to privacy in the 21st century. Despite the nuances that come with different situations, the proposed changes should recognize a cellphone as a personal device that deserves legal protection.

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