Can the police check my phone? 3 myths debunked.
Answering questions from the police is intimidating. They may ask you to provide information that makes you uncomfortable — like access to your phone. Our phones hold personal details of our lives that may or may not relate to the police’s line of questioning. Regardless, we have a right to privacy. Can police really get all this information?
Local police are not the only ones trying to get this information. The federal government is also digging into evidence found on our cellphones. The former Chief of the Security Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Internet Enforcement office explained that the “smoking gun” for almost every SEC investigation was found on a device like a smartphone.
But what are our options if we are under investigation or arrest? Can the police really gather information? There are some common myths about this issue floating around, and the following will help provide some clarity.
#1: A password does not protect privacy
Although it provides some level of protection, a password can give us a false sense of security. The police can ask for the password, and whether you should provide this information is a question to ask your lawyer. But banking on the password serving as an impenetrable shield is not wise. Police can bypass passwords. In a recent example, police were able to use a private company to crack an iPhone’s password and get into the smartphone to gather evidence.
Authorities can also thwart biometrics. It is possible for an officer to hold your phone up to your face or use your fingerprint to gain access. Is this legal? Probably not. But you would need to take legal action to fight back and get any evidence gathered this way thrown out of court.
#2: Deleted messages and data are not gone forever
Anything deleted from our phones is not necessarily gone. Police often use three tactics to get this information. First, it likely remains within the phone, retrievable by experts. If the police are looking for a text, the could also check to see if the recipient still has a copy. Police can also look to cell service providers to see if they kept this information even after you delete it. This can include the parties to the message as well as the date and time it was sent.
In some cases, they even keep records of the message itself. Research out of Fordham Law School found that as of 2010 major providers like Virgin Mobile kept the text message content for ninety days after the client sent the message, Verizon Wireless for three to five days. More recently, the four key players, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon all claim to delete copies of messages after delivery.
#3: Experts can still retrieve data from destroyed devices
A dead phone can still tell tales. In one case a police team gathering evidence from a smartphone after the accused ran it over with his car … repeatedly. The prosecution was still able to gather evidence from what looked like a destroyed device to build their case. In another example they were able to gather evidence from a phone that had a cracked screen, was soaked in water and buried for at least two weeks.
Key takeaway: You need to take steps to protect your rights
Laws are in place that require the police follow certain protocol when gathering and using evidence to build their case. If they do not, the prosecution cannot use the evidence to build their case. The key to getting that illegally gathered evidence is knowing when and how to fight back.