POST WRITTEN BY: Steven Lapkoff (’16), J.D. Pace Law School
The fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 189 L. Ed. 2d 430 (2014), has already changed police practices regarding the search and seizure of a cell phone that is held incident to an arrest. Before Riley, a police officer could search the cell phone of an arrestee for incriminating information or to expose the identities of accomplices. The Riley decision held that “[m]odern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’” The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.” Riley, 134 S. Ct. at 2495. In so doing, the court made clear that the vast quantities of personal information could only be searched when accompanied by a proper warrant.
However, recent advances in encryption technology are out-pacing the ability of courts and legislatures to adapt, increasingly putting the contents of smartphones outside the reach of the police and courts even when searches are authorized by warrant. The stated aim of this new technology is to “lock out the government,” regardless of the Riley decision.
Apple, maker of the iPhone, which uses the iOS software platform, has upgraded its encryption standard to the point that it claims is “unbreakable,” and the company does not have the ability to unlock a user’s phone even when requested to do so by government entities. Google, which distributes the competing Android platform to smartphone manufacturers, has also decided to encrypt its phones by default.
This has lead to a situation that the FBI has termed “The Black Box” or “Going Dark.” The argument goes, that if a smartphone cannot be accessed even under a lawful court order, then kidnapped children will go un-rescued and drug kingpins will go un-caught. Criminals’ secrets can then be stored worry-free, in these “black boxes” far from the reach of the police and courts. The FBI has gone so far as to demand that the tech companies implant “back door” access for police and courts to ensure continued access to users’ data.
The tech companies have responded that such scare scenarios are “inflammatory and inaccurate,” and that any “back doors” provided to the government would inevitably be exploited by opportunistic hackers. They point out that the “metadata,” data about who a person calls and texts from a smartphone, is accessible elsewhere, and that society’s expectations of privacy have fundamentally changed as more and more people shift a greater portion of their private lives onto their smartphones.
The editorial commentary in the media has come down strongly on the side of the technology companies. Wired further notes that “none of the criminal cases cited by [FBI Director] Comey meet that hypothetical because in real life those instances would be extremely rare and far outweighed by the clear public benefit of preventing the very real threat of a large-scale data breach that could affect millions of Americans.”
In the ongoing debate between security and privacy, the inexorable forward march of technology may leave the courts behind.