Mobile Privacy Takes a Step Forward

Learn more about the US Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California and it's impact on mobile privacy.

The privacy community is all abuzz over the US Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California. If you’re not familiar with the case, it concerned whether police could search the contents of a cellular phone without a warrant if the phone was found in the pocket of a suspect in another crime. The dispute arose from an old precedent that other pocket-borne detritus, like cigarette packs, scraps of paper, or keys, could be identified and categorized as evidence at the time the suspect was apprehended. Riley argued, conversely, that a mobile phone, with all its storage, personal details, and enormous capacity, was not anticipated by the precedent, and therefore should be excluded. Riley won, unanimously, in a far-reaching decision from the Justices.

This is a very big deal because it creates, within US law at least, a very strong position in defense of privacy rights in the digital age. There was an earlier decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals which found that tracking data from cellular phone towers must also be obtained only with a warrant. Legally, at least, this advances the interests of smartphone users at the expense of law enforcement.

SGP Technologies is a Swiss company, and while many of our customers are based in the US, or travel there frequently, it is our policy not to take positions on legal or political issues. We are entirely neutral with regards to whether these decisions are good or bad. But we do want to make sure our customers have a robust technical understanding of what they mean.

If you have data on your mobile phone which incriminates you in a crime, and law enforcement has probable cause to get a warrant to search your phone, you are still likely to be arrested on the basis of whatever they find. Similarly, if you are moving around with a phone which connects to mobile network towers, and a warrant is secured to retrieve those records and examine them with regards to your activities, the data will still show where you were and generally what your phone was saying to those towers and the mobile operator’s network. Blackphone doesn’t change any of these basic truths.

What Blackphone does is give you more options to control what footprint you leave, either stored on the phone itself or in terms of the digital breadcrumbs it leaves behind. If you enable whole-phone encryption with a robust password, anyone examining it will struggle to reveal the underlying contents. If you don’t use GSM calling or SMS messaging, relying instead on Silent Phone and Silent Text, you won’t leave anywhere near as many records about your communications activity. If you browse using the Disconnect Secure Wireless VPN, instead of over an unprotected browser, you won’t leave extensive records of what sites you visited, or what apps you used.

We don’t condone any illegal activity and remind everyone that the above statements are neither legal advice nor guarantees of anything specific. Our premise is that our users are law-abiding private citizens around the world, and they want to avoid being swept up in bulk surveillance activities. The need for additional warrants in the US will help with that goal, but it won’t remove the responsibility to take ownership of your own actions. Our products are the types of tools which help you assert that ownership, and we are here to help you make best use of them.