Supreme Court Rules On Aereo, Cellphone Searches

The Supreme Court has made two key rulings on tech-related cases today. It’s ruled against Aereo, an online service that thought it found a loophole in broadcasting laws. And it’s ruled that the police do not generally have a right to search cellphones during a warrantless arrest.

Aereo allows paying customers to access over-the-air broadcasts on a computer, either live or via DVR-like timeshifting. The company doesn’t pay any fees to broadcasters, hence the lengthy legal battle.

The way Aereo is set up means each customer technically leases a remote antenna at one of its locations around the country, then uses the Internet connection to access the footage. Aereo maintained that legally this was no different to a person using an antenna in their own home.

ABC’s legal action was based on the argument that this constituted rebroadcasting, of the type that cable companies pay high fees to television networks for. As the case progressed, the arguments centered on whether or not Aereo was offering a public performance, or whether the use of individual antennas meant this was not the case.

The Supreme Court case was particularly controversial as one judge appeared to be making the argument that even if Aereo had used a loophole to get round the precise wording of the law, it should still be prevented from acting in a way that violated the law’s intentions.

Tech lawyers have speculated that the decision against Aereo, reached by a 6-to-3 majority, could be cited in cases involving other online services, for example in cloud storage that involves copyrighted content.

Meanwhile the Court has also ruled¬†unanimously¬†against the government in two cases involving police searching cellphones when arresting suspects. To date the general principle has been that police can search any items on an arrested suspect’s person or within their reach without needing a warrant.

The Court agreed with the lawyers of suspects who argued that cellphones should be an exception to this principle because they hold so much personal and sensitive data. Police will now only be able to search cellphones without a warrant in exceptional cases where the information is of immediate and urgent importance.

The judges cited examples such as a suspect texting somebody who had access to a bomb, or a kidnapper whose phone was believed to have information on a victim’s location. Even in such cases, police will be required to justify a search to a court after the event.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the ruling was right, even if benefitted actual criminals: ” We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Privacy comes at a cost.”