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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Ruling a win for privacy rights

I’m a bit of a technophobe, which is why it took me such a long time to upgrade from a basic flip cellphone to a smartphone.

And if my old flip phone hadn’t died in December, I’d probably still have it.

But I don’t miss the old flip phone, as my iPhone is capable of all sorts of amazing things. I can use it to take pictures and to send notes to friends. I check my email on it, as well as sports scores, and read newspapers and other online publications. It tells me the weather and the time, and allows me to buy music by accessing iTunes. I can play videos on it and track the ups and downs of the stock market. You could learn a lot about me — my interests, relationships and activities — from my phone.

Which is why I was pleased to see the Supreme Court rule unanimously on Tuesday that police need to get a warrant before searching a suspect’s cellphone.

The decision is an affirmation of privacy rights at a time when those rights often seem to be eroding, and a rare acknowledgement from the court that the world of the 21st century is different from the world the Founding Fathers inhabited.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, but there are exceptions. For instance, police do not need a warrant to search someone they have just arrested. There are reasons for this — the suspect might be carrying a weapon, or evidence could be destroyed in the time it would take to obtain a warrant.

But searching a cellphone is different from searching someone’s pockets, as cellphones contain huge amounts of personal information, and pockets mostly contain lint.

As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”

He added, “A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form — unless the phone is.”

I tend to be uncomfortable predicting the future, but the Supreme Court’s cellphone ruling seems to pave the way for an examination of the constitutionality of the government’s sweeping surveillance powers and widespread collection of data.

That’s a good thing.

Technological advances have made it easier for government agencies to monitor ordinary citizens and compile dossiers on them, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime. Such large-scale, indiscriminate spying turns everyone into a suspect and can easily lead to abuse, or damaging mistakes. The fact that Edward Snowden was able to download a trove of highly sensitive NSA documents and share them with journalists raises questions about whether the government can really be trusted to safeguard our personal records and data.

Some would argue that we live in a world where there’s less privacy than there used to be, and it’s time to accept that.

But I’m not quite ready to do so.

And now, thanks to the cellphone ruling, there’s reason to believe the Supreme Court is ready to begin the slow process of restoring and protecting privacy rights.

Fatal stabbing

In other news, I was pleased to see that the Victory Mills teenager who killed his mother’s abusive boyfriend was not charged in connection with the man’s death.

From the outset, this sounded like a case of justifiable homicide, and I sympathized with the teenager, an 18-year-old named Matthew J. Brown.

Brown stabbed his mother’s fiance, Derick K. Clark, 32, during a violent domestic dispute. His attorney claimed that he was defending himself and his mother, and the records showed that he immediately called 911. The grand jury decided Monday to dismiss the murder charge and Brown was able to walk free.

This is a sad story.

But the outcome is just.

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