In the age of smartphones, privacy reform for tech is necessary

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The question of electronic privacy is a big issue these days. What with our personal lives splattered all over Facebook and Twitter, maintaining privacy while participating in the online world can be difficult.

But even if you don’t use social networking sites, a good chunk of personal information is probably stored in your cell phone. And this doesn’t only apply to smartphones — every cell phone has text messages, contacts, and other private data.

As more and more information ends up stored in our technological devices, the question arises: How safe is that information? Or, perhaps more importantly, how much should we protect that information?

These questions are being hotly debated in legislatures all over the country, especially when it comes to cell phones. Some, such as the Supreme Court of California, argue that finding a cell phone on a suspect grants police the right to search it. Others, such as the Supreme Court of Ohio, argue that cell phones contains highly personal information, and can only be searched with a warrant.

Of course, having easy access to the information in cell phones would be a godsend to police when it comes to finding criminals. In 2009, the accidental search of a cell phone led to solving a child’s murder, according to an article in The New York Times.

Trisha Oliver, mother of six-year-old Marco Nieves, called 911 to report that her son was unconscious. An officer arrived at her apartment after the ambulance, and Oliver let him inside before following her son to the hospital. While she was gone, the officer heard a cell phone go off — it belonged to Oliver’s boyfriend, Michael Patino, who lived in the apartment as well. The text message, from Oliver, reportedly said, “Wat if I got 2 take him 2 da hospital wat do I say and dos marks on his neck omg.”

Nieves eventually died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, and Patino was arrested for murder. However, Rhode Island Superior Court Associate Justice Judith Savage eventually overturned those charges, ruling that the information that played a significant role in Patino’s conviction was unlawfully obtained.

The issue of electronic privacy came to a head this past Thursday, when a Senate committee discussed changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Police now need a search warrant to access email or any type of electronic communication (such as data stored with Facebook or Google). The changes proposed do not discuss cell phones specifically, leaving mobile devices on murky legal ground.

Although these changes definitely clarify the status of electronic information in America’s legal system, let’s take a moment to consider this: When do you think the ECPA was originally written? If you guessed 1986, you’re right on the money.

Until last Thursday, an act that had a sizable impact on the way our legal system dealt with electronic information had not been revised in over 20 years. The technology we use every day did not even exist 20 years ago. Having technology laws that are obviously outdated is a dangerous situation.

Of course, the courts cannot keep up with every technological change, but this gap in reform is ridiculous. Cell phones in 1986 were essentially bricks you could talk to people on. Cell phones today are little boxes of wizardry; you can call people, of course, but with a smartphone you can also book a plane flight, locate every Starbucks in a five-mile radius, and play Angry Birds.

Cell phones stopped functioning as only phones a long time ago. They are tiny personalized computers, with a whole lot of sensitive and private data that we just happen to carry everywhere in our pockets.

The police should not be able to search cell phones without warrants, even though that information can be extraordinarily useful sometimes. In Nieves’ case, that information proved invaluable in finding his killer, and Patino should be brought to justice.
But cell phones are a new frontier in private information — a frontier that must be protected.