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Privacy Rights to Cell Phone Data

July 16, 2014

In Riley v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed that law enforcement personnel must first obtain a warrant before they may search an individual’s cell phone. This “search and seizure” decision may have implications for private sector employees.

Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, offered a skillful description of the role cell phones play in today’s world. “The average cell phone user has installed 33 apps,” he explained, “which together can form a revealing montage of the user’s life.” The Court recognized that data contained on an individual’s cell phone, for example, an address, contact name, or text message, reveal personal information. The added context, provided by the phone, increases the value of that evidence and raises the user’s privacy interest in it.

Although Riley is primarily a Fourth Amendment decision and does not address employment law questions, it will likely influence the private sector and is worth employers’ attention. The Court has clearly recognized that individuals have a strong privacy interest in the information contained on their cell phones.

It is important for employers to design an appropriate mobile device policy, protecting employer information contained on employees’ phones. Organizations may also benefit from telling workers when cell phone use is appropriate.

Technology is reshaping the workplace and the law along with it. Cell phones have become personal ledgers, in which employees reasonably expect a degree of privacy.

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