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

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