Should law enforcement need a warrant to search your cell phone?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| June 1, 2011

Cell phones have grown to be an extension of our body, a depository for all things that define us and a device that easily keeps a record of everything we get our noses into. If someone, especially a complete stranger, picked up your phone without your permission and started nosing around in your pictures, text messages or emails, you would certainly feel violated. Any person with a sense of privacy or common knowledge of the U.S. Constitution would.

A report from CNN yesterday states that depending on your state and how its officials feel about cell phones and the Fourth Amendment, police may have the ability to search your phone without a warrant. According to a California Supreme Court decision in January, it is perfectly legal for law enforcement to – without a warrant, mind you – search the cell phone of someone they have arrested. Similar decisions were upheld in both Florida and Georgia appellate court decisions. On the other hand, residents in Ohio are much more lucky in that a court case ruling has deemed unwarranted searches of cell phones unconstitutional.

I hate to sound like some delusional, paranoid crackpot theorist, but this is only the beginning. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan spoke out against the Michigan State Police, in fear that they were violating the Fourth Amendment. MSP has reportedly been using a device that extracts information of phones.

The device is a Cellebrite UFED (not all that different from what carrier stores use to transfer data between phones), which can allegedly extract all pictures, videos, text messages, emails, GPS locations and mountains of other data from your phone. All of this is said to take roughly 90 seconds and it can even extract deleted data to some degree. According to the Cellebrite website, the UFED device has over 3,000 phones in its repository and it can bypass passwords, if need be.

MSP are claiming to only use the devices when a search warrant is issued or with the consent of the owner. That said, ACLU has requested reports and an explanation of how and when the devices are used. In short, Michigan State Police have hardly cooperated. According to a statement from ACLU, the cost of retrieving these documents would amount to $544,680. To retrieve a single document, ALCU states that Michigan State Police are asking for $272,340. That seems a bit high, no?

There are also some tales floating around the Internet, albeit few, of people having their personal device violated without cause or warrant.

Personally, I don't know which to believe. And quite honestly, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that this will be an insurmountable issue in the coming months and years as cell phones continue to gain attention worldwide. Smartphones can now do more than ever before, which means we will use them to do more; a record of what we do and where we go is stored on the device. Should the occasion arise, evidence of such could turn a court case that might last months into an open-and-shut case that ends before McDonald's stops serving breakfast.

Even though I don't partake in any illegal or shady activity, if I did, surely no evidence of it would ever knowingly be kept on my phone. Regardless, any unwarranted search of my phone would still leave me feeling violated and eaten alive by nerves. No law enforcement would search my home or car without a warrant or my consent. Why should my phone be considered any different?

As a helpful tip, Amy Gahran of CNN suggests that you should always keep your phone password protected, especially if you're concerned about police or even a nosey neighbor getting into your phone. Despite taking the extra precaution, some extraction methods bypass passwords and law enforcement could simply ask you to unlock your phone; "...but they almost certainly cannot compel you to unlock your phone without the involvement of a judge," says Catherine Crump of the ALCU.

How do you feel about the subject? Should law enforcement need a warrant to search your phone? Or is an unwarranted search of your cell phone perfectly constitutional?

Image via Cellebrite