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Smartphone Data: Available Without a Warrant?

With advancements in technologies, come advancements of capabilities. As our devices mature and grow smarter everyday, questions pertaining to social, environmental and legal impacts are also raised. With the amazing progress the smartphone has seen in the past few years, the legalities of lawful access to a device’s content is now up for discussion.
The smartphone business is a booming one. Windows Mobile devices, Blackberrys, iPhones, are devices most of us carry, and rely upon. Similar to a computer, we store pictures, contacts, notes, documents, videos and other personal and professional information on them. As a device such as this is generally considered personal property, the information it contains is assumed the same. In the age of digital and technology assisted crime, police officials and lawmakers are thinking while others are raising eyebrows.

Up for debate is the answer to the question; when is it legal for police or other law enforcement to access the information on a mobile device? Intended searches would be in effort to find incriminating evidence, however, without a warrant, is it legal? Law enforcement agencies state that the law needs to keep up to date and apply to technology. The proposal seems logical, however, it is the logistics that are in question.

Experts say a recent arrest on felony fraud charges (where a cell phone was searched without a warrant) in San Mateo County, California could possibly set the stage for a whole new set of rules regarding cell phone searches. Those for the movement describe the search of a cell phone no different than any other legal search. Civil liberty groups oppose the potential outcome, claiming the search as unconstitutional, and privacy advocates state the cell phone should be omitted from a search as it may contain a large quantity of private and sensitive material unrelated to the arrest.

As the outcome is still to be seen, other questions have come up to complicate the matter. The possibility of the deletion of evidence, unauthorized hacks to gain access without a user password, the ability to remotely wipe the device, and what the search limits would be are just a few.


Declan McCullagh, “Police push for warrantless searches of cell phones”, CNET.