The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Riley v. California case last week, and in them, the privacy settings of Facebook were discussed. The case involves a San Diego college student, David Riley. He was pulled over for driving on expired tags, when the police seized his phone. They went through the phone, finding a photo on it that linked him to participating in a drive-by shooting, which he was later convicted for.
Jeffrey L. Fisher, who is representing Riley, argued that going through photos on a smartphone requires that the police draw on data which is ‘intrinsically intertwined’ in the device, which is protected by the Fourth Amendment.
This case will shape what privacy protections Americans will have against warrantless searches of electronic devices in the future. Since this is the first case the Supreme Court has looked at which is dealing with this very specific scenario, it will be used as a precedent for future cases. This type of situation has the potential to happen to virtually anyone, at any time, due to the fact that people store so much information on their mobile phones, and the apps on them.
Chief Justice John Roberts discussed the specifics of the privacy expectations of information on the phones, and in apps like Facebook. He asked regarding the expectation of privacy whether it was, “including information that is specifically designed to be made public? I mean, what about something like Facebook or a Twitter account?”
Roberts said that there isn’t “any privacy interest” in a Facebook account, or that it is “at least diminished because the point is you want these things to be public and seen widely.”
Of course, there is a lot of areas on Facebook which are indeed private. Facebook messenger, for example, is a private conversation between just two people. In addition, many posts are only available to the specific individuals who are given access (the user’s “friends”). Fisher explained this noting that, “Even a Facebook account is a limited universe of people who have access to it.”
Justice Roberts seemed hesitant to accept this argument, saying “I mean, you know, maybe it’s a hundred people, but it’s certainly not private in the sense that many other application are.”
An argument could easily be made (and may be made in this case) that if activity on Facebook were not private, the Police wouldn’t need to look on an individual’s device to access it. They could simply access it publically through the normal Facebook network. On the other hand, if police can’t access it through a normal Facebook account, that may imply privacy rights.
These were just the opening oral arguments, and this case may have a long way to go. It is certainly something all of us will want to keep an eye on, as it could affect what types of privacy rights we enjoy on our electronic devices.