SCOTUS’ Cellphone Ruling Has Health Data Privacy Implications

June 27, 2014 in News

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that cell phone searches conducted by law enforcement officials without a warrant are unconstitutional, in part because of the potential for phones to contain personal health care data, Modern Healthcare reports.


The ruling overturns a decision by a California state appeals court after a criminal conviction in a case, Riley v. California, and upholds a federal appeals court decision to strike down a criminal conviction in United States v. Wurie.

According to Modern Healthcare, the original convictions in both cases were obtained using data collected by law enforcement officials from the defendants’ cell phones, which were confiscated at the time of their arrests. 

At issue in the Supreme Court case was whether the law enforcement officials’ cell phone searches violated the Fourth Amendment, which states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”


In the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that cell phones differ from other evidence collected and searched by law enforcement, such as a wallet, purse or car.

He noted that their data are “qualitatively different” and that cell phones have large storage abilities and are able to connect to online servers and cloud-based storage systems (Conn, Modern Healthcare, 6/26).

For example, the ruling noted that an individual’s cell phone might show an “Internet search and browsing history” that could “reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns — perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD.”

Further, the ruling stated that cell phones can track an individual’s every movement and contain applications that could reveal “alcohol, drug and gambling addictions” or the individual’s pregnancy status or desire to become pregnant (Barbash, Washington Post, 6/26).

Therefore, the court ruled that “a warrant is generally required before a [cell phone] search” (Modern Healthcare, 6/26).

Roberts wrote, “We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime.” However, he added that “[m]odern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life’” (Vijayan, Computerworld, 6/25).


Health care privacy specialists say the ruling likely will have broader implications in the health care industry.

According to Modern Healthcare, it could become a guide for privacy advocates and health care stakeholders as they grapple with consent rights over who can access patients’ medical records. Jim Pyles, a principal attorney at Powers Pyles Sutter Verville, said that the ruling “should be very good news for those of us who do believe patients should have control over who sees their health care information.”

Pyles added that the ruling could affect current discussions by HHS’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration regarding potential changes to privacy protections to facilitate the sharing of substance misuse data.

Meanwhile, Adam Greene, a privacy lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine, said he does not foresee “any immediate potential impact for the health care industry.” However, he said the ruling “sets up precedent in the government having a very strong stake in protecting patient privacy above other interests” (Modern Healthcare, 6/26).

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