Justices to contemplate geofencing, Faraday bags and airplane mode

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court justices will contemplate the distinction between locked and password protected phones, the storage capacity of certain phone models as well as terms like geofencing, Faraday bags and airplane mode.

This conversation will take place in front of nine justices, who are not the most technologically sophisticated people, according to their colleague Elena Kagan, as Silicon Beat noted. Last year, she said that the court hadn’t “gotten to” email.

The justices will hear oral arguments Tuesday over whether police should obtain a warrant to search the contents of a cellphone upon arrest. I wrote in a column this week that the justices should come down on the side of requiring a warrant given the capabilities of smartphones. I also appeared on KQED’s Newsroom program talking about the question with Rory Little, a professor at UC Hastings who said it’s likely some justices do not use smartphones.

As the New York Times wrote in an editorial, the ability of police to search a person has long been limited to what the person could carry on their person. “Modern mobile phones have obliterated that rationale,” the editorial board said. “Of the new iPhones, the smallest-capacity model can hold the equivalent of 16 pickup trucks of paper, thousands of photos or hours of videos.”

The court will hear arguments involving two cases, one from California that the state is arguing and another from Massachusetts that the federal government is arguing.

One of the state’s chief arguments is that a person could destroy or remotely wipe data on a smartphone, thus destroying evidence. An officer has a short amount of time to save that evidence, the state says.

Also of concern is “geofencing,” newer technology that will automatically wipe data of a phone if it is brought into a certain location, such as a police station, the U.S. government says in a brief in a related case.

But, in their reply, lawyers for David Leon Riley, a California man who is serving up to 15 years after his smartphone contents were used to convict him, try to poke holes in the government’s technical arguments.

The brief includes images of smartphones and screen shots showing how to turn on airplane mode, among other things. Police can turn on airplane mode, thus blocking radio waves, they say.

If that doesn’t work or seem enough, officers can use Faraday bags, which block remote wiping, Riley’s lawyers said.

Speaking of being tech friendly, Supreme Court sessions are not televised and an audio recording of the discussion is typically available days later. We will have to rely on reporters in the room to relay the discussion.

Above: U.S. Supreme Court (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)


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