The Complex

Supreme Court Shields Cell Phone Data From Warrantless Police Searches

The Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that police officers need to obtain warrants before searching through the cellphones of people they arrest, a potentially far-reaching decision that comes at a moment when courts across the United States are considering how to adapt laws on privacy to an age where staggering amounts of personal information reside on ever-growing numbers of electronic devices.

The Supreme Court's ruling pertains to criminal law and doesn't affect the laws governing warrantless surveillance and data collection that have been at the heart of the controversy over intelligence-gathering by the National Security Agency. That may change, however, with the high court recently signaling that it may be prepared to reconsider the rules around that kind of data-gathering as well. More specifically, the court would likely examine whether so-called metadata, such as the phone records that the NSA has been routinely collecting for years, should be afforded greater legal protection against government search and seizure.

In that context, the court's 9-0 ruling on cellphone searches seemed to emphasize its willingness to reset the balance between security and privacy -- and to do so in favor of more privacy. In writing the unanimous opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said that cellphones typically disclose far more personal information about a suspect than the government would be able to obtain by physically searching his or her house. "A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form -- unless the phone is."

Roberts closed the opinion with a straightforward admonition to police officers who'd like to snoop the contents of suspects' phones: "Get a warrant."

The case confronting the Supreme Court concerned two cases involving police searches of the cellphones of criminal suspects. In one, police discovered guns in the car of a man they had pulled over for having an expired auto registration and then searched his cellphone, where they found information that tied him to a street gang and a previous shooting. In the second, the judges upheld a lower court ruling tossing out the conviction of Brima Wurie, who had been put on trial after police searched his call logs following a minor traffic stop and used the information to find guns and drugs at his home.

While those searches differ from an intelligence agency obtaining phone records for potential terrorism investigations, legal experts have predicted that the controversy over NSA surveillance -- a set of activities that are largely governed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but that still must comport with the Fourth Amendment's prohibitions on unreasonable search and seizure -- is bound to end up before the justices.

And one justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has already indicated that it may be time to rethink an earlier ruling that held that phone metadata, including the numbers a person dials and how long he speaks on the phone, aren't protected by the Fourth Amendment and can be obtained without a warrant. That metadata, just like information on a person's cellphone, can reveal intimate details about his personal relationships, his habits, and potentially his movements.

In the digital age, "people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks," Sotomayor wrote in 2012 while signing on to a ruling requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracker on a suspect's car. The question of metadata wasn't before the court, but the balance between privacy and security was.

"I, for one, doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year," Sotomayor wrote. "But whatever the societal expectations, they can attain constitutionally protected status only if our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence ceases to treat secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy."

Many experts quickly greeted the Court's ruling in the cellphone search case as a victory for privacy rights in the digital age. Orin Kerr, a law professor at the George Washington University, called the ruling "a big win for digital privacy." Richard Bejtlich, a senior strategist with the cybersecurity firm FireEye, likewise called the ruling a significant victory and said in a tweet that he agreed with the Court's unanimous decision.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News

National Security

U.S. Troops Begin Controversial New Mission in Iraq

American military advisors have started their "assessment" mission in Iraq, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, the first step in what could be a sustained U.S. effort to help the battered Iraqi military beat back an onslaught by Islamist fighters.

About 130 U.S. military personnel, including approximately 40 special operations troops already in Iraq, will work with Iraqi forces to establish a "Joint Operations Center" in Baghdad. Together, they will assess Iraq's current security capabilities and the situation on the ground now that Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham fighters have taken over large swaths of the country. Another four teams, for a total of 50 more troops, will soon arrive in Iraq. The White House has authorized as many as 300 troops for the Iraq mission but Pentagon officials said it's not yet clear if that many will be needed there.

"These teams will assess the cohesiveness and readiness of Iraqi security forces, higher headquarters in Baghdad, and examine the most effective and efficient way to introduce follow-on advisors," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday. The teams will get to work immediately and provide findings "through the chain of command" within the next two to three weeks, he said.

Dozens of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR missions, over Iraq are also underway, and U.S. officials say they plan to conduct as many as 35 manned and unmanned flights daily to give U.S. and Iraqi forces a better picture of Sunni fighters' movements and battlefield positions.

More than 1,000 people have been killed in the last three weeks as ISIS militiamen storm across the country, according to a United Nations estimate released Tuesday, which termed the figure "very much a minimum." The fighters have conquered broad swaths of northern and central Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city.

Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting the Kurdish region of Iraq Tuesday, is meeting with Iraqi leaders to push for a unity government capable of narrowing growing sectarian divide. Kerry is trying to persuade Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to share power with the country's Sunnis and Kurds or step aside. Meanwhile, ISIS marches ever closer to Baghdad, forcing Maliki to ask the U.S. for assistance.

President Barack Obama, who proudly ended the Iraq War in 2011 and brought home all U.S. combat troops, ordered 300 advisors back to Iraq last week.

Although the troops will be armed, the White House stresses that they will not serve in a combat role. Airstrikes against ISIS have also not been ruled out. Eager to avoid stepping into the conflict inside Iraq that is fed by violence across the border in Syria, though, the troops' assessment will at least partially determine whether airstrikes would be effective enough to justify the risk of a broader armed intervention into the region.

Kerry on Monday hinted that airstrikes could be imminent and that the U.S. won't necessarily wait for a new "multi-sectarian" government to form in Baghdad before taking direct action against ISIS.

"The president has also made it clear that airstrikes are not off the table," Kirby said. "And if he decides that that is required, then they remain postured in the region to do that, but there's been no such decision."

The mission in Iraq couldn't begin until Washington and Baghdad hammered out a last-minute legal understanding over what would happen if any of those troops got into hot water during the mission. The White House cited the lack of such an agreement as the reason U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq in 2011. But a "diplomatic note," agreed upon Tuesday, provides troops the requisite immunity for a mission that Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, described as a "short-term limited direction" mission.