Blog Post

What Would the Police Find if They Searched Your Phone?

Mobile phones — and particularly smartphones, with their web browsers and GPS, photo-sharing apps and so on — have become such a crucial part of many of our lives that they are difficult to live without. The fear of losing a phone stems in part from the wealth of information we keep on our mobile devices, from photos to passwords and banking data. Imagine what the police could find out about you if they had the ability to search your phone and all it contains — something that is now more than just a hypothetical situation, at least if you live in California.

The Supreme Court in that state ruled earlier this week that police have the right to search an individual’s phone if they are arrested in connection with a suspected crime. And that’s not all; the court ruled that police could do so without even requiring any kind of search warrant, something they typically need for property searches. The decision appears to be based on earlier court rulings in California and elsewhere that criminal suspects give up the right to personal privacy at some point, and that this includes any “personal property” that is associated with them (although most of these earlier cases did not involve cellphones).

As CNN mobile writer Amy Gahran notes, text messages were the original focus of the police investigation, which involved a suspected drug dealer using his phone to connect with a buyer. But the court’s decision wasn’t restricted to allowing police to check a phone owner’s text-messaging history. In effect, the ruling (PDF link) allows police to search everything on a mobile device, from texts and phone records to browser search histories, photo galleries, social-networking activity and potentially even a user’s history within location-based apps and services such as Foursquare or Facebook Places.

Being able to pull all of this information together would obviously be a huge potential tool for police. In the case of terrorism, for example, police and security experts could connect a suspect with other collaborators based on their texts, social networking activity, photos, browser history and location-based services — creating a fairly complete picture of a suspect’s behavior, connections and whereabouts over a given period, something that would take a long time (if it were possible at all) given traditional methods.

At the same time, however, giving police that ability — especially without a warrant — raises some fairly profound privacy and freedom of speech issues, something the California court is certain to run into if and when the case is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court (which has been asked before to make a definitive ruling on this kind of issue). If the police can’t enter your home and look through your closets and tap your home phone without a warrant, why should they be allowed to go through your virtual possessions and mobile-phone records?

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Gail Jade Hamilton

10 Responses to “What Would the Police Find if They Searched Your Phone?”

  1. This horrible decision makes passwords or remote-wipe even more important.

    Can they force you to reveal the password? I’m guessing no, for right now.

    Just have a script or someone trustworthy available who can issue a remote wipe (a simple call or text after being pulled over).

  2. Just don’t do anything for which the police can stop or arrest you and you won’t have to worry about anything in your pockets or on your phone. Personally, IMO, this is an invasion of privacy and requires a search warrant. If the police want to arrest me for anything, then I should have the right to have the police arrested for talking on a cell phone while driving (or failure to use his directionals or speeding when no emergency is apparent, i.e., no lights).

    • We must be diligent of government abuse of power even for us law abiding citizens. As John Adams said: “It is weakness rather than wickedness which renders men unfit to be trusted with unlimited power.” I trust law enforcement searches in principle, but in practice government officials may not be as incorruptible as we wish.

      I believe police have limited search capabilities on cell phones. They should not be allowed network access to a persons digital life. Also, they should not be allowed to retain passwords obtained from the phone either. However, all contents (msg/pictures/documents) on the phone should be subject to search. If a persons password protects their phone, then that person has the right to refuse self incrimination by refusing to provide the password. Some may say this protects criminals, but Voltaire would say: “It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.”

  3. Hayeksheroes

    Alleygator, how naive you are and how easily you give up your freedoms. I guess you allow the TSA to pat you down too? Well you still have rights even when you are arrested. Your privacy should be protected. Why should the police have the right to go on a search if you are stopped for jaywalking or speeding. I bet you were up in arms about Arizona’s illegal immigrant law but you couldn’t care less when the government invades legal citizens’ privacy. Strange logic indeed.

    • AlleyGator

      Respond to what I wrote, not to what you think.

      If the Police arrest you for driving under the influence, then they can search your car for evidence that you were driving under the influence. That is current law. No search warrant is needed in that case.

      Same here. If they arrest you for making a drug deal, then they can search your phone for evidence that you made a drug deal. This is known as probable cause.

      What they can’t do is arrest you for no reason, then search your phone, then charge you with a crime if they find something.

  4. AlleyGator

    If the police aren’t allowed to search your wallet or your car when you are arrested, then I’d agree they aren’t allowed to search your phone.

    However once you are arrested for a crime, then there is usually probable cause to search your car, your wallet, your pockets for evidence in connection to the crime you have been arrested for. The Fourth amendment does not protect you from this.

    So the decision seems justifiable from a legal point of view, and follows precedent. Homes and private real property are treated differently than one’s personal effects and vehicles. Whether the police will end up misinterpreting the ruling or abusing it is not the question they answered.

  5. The police being able to search someone’s phone without a search warrant worries me. However, the world is advancing in technology so fast they might have to keep up some how. Maybe this is just the start.