In a 9-0 ruling written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court ruled today that searches of cell phones require a warrant except in cases with exigent circumstances. In addition to being a clear victory for privacy advocates in the law enforcement sphere, the case has powerful ramifications for past, present, and future NSA programs.
Today’s ruling includes a number of significant hints at the Court's growing dissatisfaction with the government's willingness to trample privacy rights, (Marcy Wheeler’s twitter feed has a good rundown), but one line stands out. In Riley, the government suggested that law enforcement could develop “agency protocols” to ensure that cell phone searches are limited to local, rather than cloud data, an argument the Supreme Court tellingly, sharply rebuffed:
. . . the Founders did not fight a revolution to gain the right to government agency protocols.NSA senior officials have touted internal agency limits on how and when NSA analysts can query the database as demonstrating the legality of NSA's un-targeted, mass surveillance operations. (Of course, the NSA has been caught violating such procedures multiple times ), but that’s another story.)
In 2010-2011, the NSA ran a “pilot” program which collected domestic cell location data. NSA also currently collects location data “incidentally” (read "incidentally" as "potentially millions") from Americans as part of its global location data tracking.
In Riley, however, in a discussion about the relative privacy interest between cell data and physical records, Roberts points out that cell location data is incredibly revealing.
Data on a cell phone can also reveal where a person has been. Historic location information is a standard feature on many smart phones and can reconstruct someone’s specific movements down to the minute, not only around town but also within a particular building.Privacy advocates, such as Trevor Timm are reading this as an implicit endorsement of the recent 11th Circuit decision, United States v. Quartavious Davis, which held that warrants are required for the collection of cellphone location data. If affirmed by the Supreme Court, such a ruling would definitively put the kibosh on reviving the NSA domestic location data program.
Every court victory for privacy rights, including today's decision and U.S. v. Jones (2012 ruling that governemnt needed a warrant to place GPS tracker on a suspect's vehicle) makes NSA's questionable arguments for the legality of its mass surveillance operations even more untenable.