In a case that is admittedly a little on the seedy side, but which could have wide-ranging implications for all sorts of privacy issues, including citizens’ ‘expectations of privacy’ when using email and surfing the web, a US state Supreme Court has ruled (in a close 5-4 ruling) that police require a search warrant to read suspects’ SMS messages without their permission.
The case involves the arrest of a certain David Lee for possession of heroin, following which police accessed his phone’s text messages without his permission. They then used this information to pose as Lee, arrange a meeting with two men to sell them drugs. When the men turned up, the police arrested them and charged them with attempted possession of heroin.
Although the verdict was close and hotly contested, Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez successfully argued that text messages ‘can encompass the same intimate subjects as phone calls, sealed letters, and other traditional forms of communication that have historically been protected under Washington law,’ and that ‘technological advancements do not extinguish privacy interests that Washington citizens are entitled to hold.’
This is view endorsed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), whose staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury told The Seattle Times that ‘just because a letter is sitting in your mailbox doesn’t mean the cops get to open it… The Washington court said there shouldn’t be a difference.’
Interestingly, a similar case just in occurred Texas, where an appeals court ruled that a prison inmate had the right to an expectation of a phone’s privacy, even if imprisoned and the phone was held in the jail’s property room,
‘A cell phone is unlike other containers as it can receive, store and transmit an almost unlimited amount of private information. The potential for invasion of privacy, identity theft or, at a minimum, public embarrassment, is enormous.’
It is probably a little early to speculate, but these cases may indicate a general move by US courts towards the protection of individual’s privacy. We can but hope.