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Cellphone searches and privacy protections, part 2: Little Brother

George Orwell's novel "1984" was one of the most famous books of the 20th century. Millions of high school and college-age kids came of age reading this cautionary tale about the threat posed to individual identity by an omnipresent, dictatorial government represented by the famous figure of Big Brother.

Today, two decades after the collapse of the Cold War, the anxiety about an external Big Brother has faded somewhat. In many ways, however, the threat to privacy protections by government data collectors is even greater now than when Orwell wrote.

After all, as we discussed in part one of this post, smartphones hold a potential gold mine of personal data for law enforcement investigators who are allowed to search their contents. In that sense, government in the form of Little Brother is as big of a threat to privacy as Big Brother ever was.

The lower courts have disagreed about whether search warrants are necessary for cellphone searches.

For that reason, it is quite possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually have to settle the question of cellphone searches. Indeed, the Obama administration has asked the Court to do so, in a case called United States v. Wurie.

The Wurie case involves the issue of whether police can search the contents of a cellphone without a warrant after making a valid custodial arrest.

Our point in this post, however, is that the issue of digital privacy and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches goes beyond the result of any particular case. This is because government, in the form of Little Brother, keeps multiplying the ways it seeks to collect data on people.

Besides cellphones, another example is the automatic readers for license plates that many police departments now use. Police say the data helps to investigate car theft and a host of other possible crimes.

But such readers allow government to create vast databases containing information that can be used to track anyone's movements - even if there is no probable cause whatsoever to suspect the person of a crime.

Source: wbur, "It's Time For Real Spying Reform," Carol Rose and Jessie Rossman, Nov. 19, 2013

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