19:09 15 February 2011
Niall Firth, technology editor
What’s the difference? (Image: Rex Features)
Just where is the boundary line between a computer and a cell phone? Does one even exist?
The question is particularly pertinent following a recent ruling in January in the US that allowed police to search a suspect’s cellphone without a warrant. The thinking behind the decision was to stop suspects destroying potentially incriminating evidence on their phones, in the form of text messages.
But the ruling angered many in the US: in crimes in which the accused is carrying their cellphone in their pocket, was it really fair that all the data that is accessible via the cloud – texts, documents and emails – now be seized without warning? Cellphones are now so advanced that official access to one provides the authorities with almost the same level of insight into one’s life as the seizure of a home computer. Whatever happened to the Fourth Amendment?
But now the issue has been clouded even further. This week in the District Court of Springfield in New Orleans, Louisiana, a judge ruled that a cellphone should be classified as a computer for the first time.
The ruling came, as reported in the New Orleans Business News, after a man named Neil Kramer pleaded guilty to bringing a 15-year-old girl across state lines in 2008 to have sex.
When the prosecution tried to land him with a lengthier sentence they argued that his use of a cellphone during the crime was the same as using a computer – his Motorola Motorazr could access the internet – and was an aggravating factor.
Remarkably, US District Judge Richard Dorr agreed, and handed Kramer an extra two years on his tariff for the use of a computer in enticing a minor to engage in sexual conduct. Current US law says a computer is “an electronic, magnetic, optical, electrochemical, or other high speed data processing device performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions.”
Cellphones we use today are far more powerful than the hulking desktop PCs we used little more than 10 years ago, that much is certain. And it’s hard to argue that even the lowliest of internet-enabled phones fulfills these basic criteria.
The police in the US need a warrant to search a suspect’s personal home computer, protected, as it is, by the Fourth Amendment. If your cellphone, and all it contains, is now officially a computer can this now be used as a defence to prevent the authorities seizing it when they carry out a search? No one really knows until it is tested in court but it is an interesting development and shows how advances in technology can muddle even the clearest of legal matters.
Despite the serious nature of the case, however, the New Orleans court’s judgement was not without its moment of levity.
To show how bad humans are at predicting future developments in technology, the court included a footnote to a 1949 article in Popular Mechanics magazine which said that “computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1.5 tons.”