In case you missed it, yesterday was a big day for the Supreme Court – and for American citizens.
The court ruled on several high-profile cases that we’ve been tracking here… one favorably, and the other not so much.
And while the court’s ruling in the cellphone privacy case is a win for civil libertarians, the ruling in the Aereo case shows that big business and big dollars still rule the political landscape.
Privacy in the Digital Age
The essence of the (unanimous) cellphone decision is that, if you’re arrested, the cops now need a warrant to search your phone.
Previously, this was not the case, and cops had used information found on cellphones to tack on additional charges or connect people to unrelated crimes.
There are a few exceptions to the ruling, such as circumstances in which evidence could be destroyed or if there’s a chance the suspect might flee.
But generally speaking, the rule is a win for citizens everywhere.
And frankly, it’s refreshing to see that the Supreme Court is cognizant of the detailed and private information that can be collected from our phone data – even if the judges themselves aren’t so technologically savvy.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “A cellphone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.”
That thought leads us to the next logical question, which Brian Williams addressed on NBC Nightly News: How does this ruling affect the NSA’s surveillance programs?
Unfortunately, at this point, it doesn’t.
The NSA collects much of its data directly from the phone companies, where it’s already aggregated – a crucial difference from taking data directly from a user’s phone.
However, as Slate noted, Roberts’ decision reads “a bit like a preview of the reasoning that will be someday deployed in a future case about National Security Agency surveillance.”
Perhaps the cellphone ruling will eventually be the tipping point for the NSA’s spying programs.
Damming Up the Stream
The other decision that grabbed headlines on Tuesday involved TV streaming company, Aereo. Until Tuesday, Aereo had been using tiny antennas to pick up TV programming from public airwaves and then stream shows to subscribers.
However, it didn’t take long for the major cable television networks, such as ABC, CBS and NBC, to file a lawsuit claiming that Aereo was illegally sidestepping a number of expensive rebroadcast fees and violating the Copyright Act.
In the end, the Supreme Court ruled against the streaming TV service, stating that Aereo is “equivalent to a cable company, not merely an equipment provider.”
The ruling is a huge loss for cord cutters and cable reform advocates who were hoping that an Aereo victory would be the catalyst for a new era of TV viewing. As Chief Executive, Chet Kanojia, said, his company was merely “giving consumers an alternative to what is now an utterly irrational system where people have to pay for so many channels.”
But the cable broadcasters are a powerful lot, with billions of dollars and influential connections on their side. For them, the ruling preserves what The Wall Street Journal calls “traditional and lucrative revenue streams.”
Ultimately, the ruling isn’t a surprising one. Even the most excited Aereo followers – me included – had to admit that the company was facing an uphill battle.
In Pursuit of the Truth,