Digital Data on Cell Phones Don't Get Privacy Protections: Court

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on December 18, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Be careful what you keep on your cell phone, because digital data will not be given privacy protection under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), according to a federal court.

The SCA prohibits unauthorized access to digital information stored in temporary and back-up storage, but the law doesn't specify what kind of storage is protected from unsanctioned investigation.

That question has been cleared up by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the ruling is not necessarily consumer-friendly.

The case came out of a situation in Laredo, Texas, where former police dispatcher Fanny Garcia was fired for violating a police-department policy.

The proof of her violation came from Garcia's cell phone. Her phone was taken from an unlocked locker in the department. Text messages and images indicated Garcia was having an affair, which was a violation of department policy.

Garcia and her attorney argued that the evidence was collected in violation of the SCA, since the evidence was data in digital storage on her cell phone.

The court didn't agree with her.

The district court ruled against Garcia and granted summary judgment for the city, which Garcia had sued. Summary judgment is a ruling that means the court feels the facts aren't in dispute and it need only apply the law to the facts.

In those cases, a full trial isn't necessary. The court can apply law to fact without a hearing.

Upon appeal, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court's ruling and went on to explain the limits of the SCA.

The Fifth Circuit determined that the SCA is designed to protect large data storage facilities. That includes things like Internet Service Providers (ISPs), search engines, and other companies that store large amounts of data.

What it doesn't include is cell phones, laptops, and other personal devices. Digital data stored in such devices isn't protected by the SCA, the court's decision held.

That doesn't affect your right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. But unauthorized access of your cell phone is not a problem under the SCA, according to the Fifth Circuit's ruling.

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