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The Supreme Court ruling yesterday that police cannot search your phone without a warrant is a recognition of what most of us already know intuitively: Our phones are deeply personal extensions of ourselves. As such, they deserve the same level of privacy protection as our own homes.
Now if only the companies that make those phones would see things the same way.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the unanimous opinion, cell phones are “now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” The court recognized the vast amount of information these devices contain — or provide access to, via the cloud — and the potential for that information to reveal every detail about a person’s life. In fact, a search of your phone would reveal far more about you than a full search of your house would, the court noted.
“The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet,” the court wrote.
Legal protection against warrantless searches is one thing, and a very important thing it is. But the niceties of the law only go so far, particularly when, as we know, there are spy agencies that regularly tap our communications without a warrant — or with the most superficial oversight and blanket approvals of a secret court. Yes, that blanket approval is changing, as the courts and Congress move to restrict the NSA’s purview. But the fact remains that much of what we do with our phones can be and often is monitored and searched.
We need better protections. And not just against government intrusions: We need to protect ourselves, if we choose, from the very companies that make our phones and the software that runs on them. Time and again we have learned that our phones, or their apps, are tracking us, collecting data on us that they don’t need. That may be harmless now, since that data is primarily being used to determine which ads to show you — which you will ignore anyway. But any large collection of deeply personal data on millions of people is a rich target for bad actors of all kinds: hackers, less-principled corporations, out-of-control surveillance states, or in some parts of the world, dictators.
As tech journalist Quinn Norton recently wrote, everything is broken when it comes to security — badly broken. Everything is riddled with holes and vulnerabilities of various kinds that, if exploited, give attackers complete control of your devices and your data. Heartbleed was a security disaster of epic proportions, but it was mostly just better publicized than other, similarly disastrous vulnerabilities. The only question is whether those vulnerabilities have been found yet and are being used against you.
Why do we put up with this shoddiness? Partly it’s because most of us don’t care. We don’t have a sense of privacy for our own devices, or we don’t worry about it, because we don’t do anything with them — or don’t believe we do — that could embarrass us or get us in trouble.
Partly, also, it is because we value convenience so highly. Automatically syncing your email, contracts, and calendar? Sign me up. Backing up all your photos to the cloud? Wonderful.
Wonderful, that is, until hackers use that very interconnectedness to delete all your family photos.
It is time for us to demand more. If the Supreme Court recognizes how deeply personal and private our phones are to us, maybe we should too.
“There are plenty of schemes that could federate or safely encrypt our data, plenty of ways we could regain privacy and make our computers work better by default,” Norton wrote. “It isn’t happening now because we haven’t demanded that it should, not because no one is clever enough to make that happen.”
Let’s demand it. If the highest court in the U.S. can figure out that privacy is needful when it comes to our phones, maybe it’s time for us to wake up to that need.
Technology does not have a mind of its own, and it does not evolve by itself, independent of human intervention. We have choices. Let’s make them.