Civil Liberties

Police Seek Warrantless Searches of Smartphones


CNET has a preview of a case argued yesterday morning that could eventually decide the issue of whether police need to secure a warrant before searching an arestee's iPhone. From the story:

When Christian Taylor stopped by the Sprint store in Daly City, Calif., last November, he was planning to buy around 30 BlackBerry handhelds.

But a Sprint employee on the lookout for fraud grew suspicious about the address and other details relating to Taylor's company, "Hype Univercity," and called the police. Taylor was arrested on charges of felony identity fraud, his car was impounded, and his iPhone was confiscated and searched by police without a warrant.

A San Mateo County judge is scheduled to hear testimony on Thursday morning in this case, which could set new ground rules for when police can conduct warrantless searches of iPhones, laptops, and similarly capacious electronic gadgets.

This is an important legal question that remains unresolved: as our gadgets store more and more information about us, including our appointments, correspondence, and personal photos and videos, what rules should police investigators be required to follow? The Obama administration and many local prosecutors' answer is that warrantless searches are perfectly constitutional during arrests. …

Privacy advocates say that long-standing legal rules allowing police to search suspects during an arrest–including looking through their wallets and pockets–should not apply to smartphones because the amount of material they store is so much greater and the risks of intrusive searches are so much higher.

One of the disputes in the case is whether or not the phone was password protected—Taylor's lawyer claims it was, while prosecutors deny it. The prosecutor conceded that if the phone had been password protected, the police would have needed a warrant to search it.

For a Reason interview with Electronic Frontier Foundation founder (and Grateful Dead lyricist) John Perry Barlow, see "John Perry Barlow 2.0" from the August/September 2004 issue.