Pando

Why the police shouldn't be allowed to search your smartphone without a warrant

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 3, 2014

From The News Desk

California police officer Sean Harrington has been charged with sending nude photos from at least two suspects' smartphones to himself, CNET reports, with as many as six photos taken in total. (Harrington was a cop when he forwarded the photographs, but he has since left the force.) His coworkers who also received the images haven't yet been charged with doing anything illegal.

The episode shows just how important the Supreme Court's decision that police officers must get a warrant to compel someone to unlock a passcode-protected smartphone really is. The ruling, which was issued in June, was based on the idea that phones contain "a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate" and should be protected.

It's easier than ever to see why the court would grant those protections to smartphones. These images weren't stolen from celebrities by some rogue hackers, like the nude photos leaked in September were. (Which isn't to say that those images were fair game; it's rather, to say that the images accessed by Harrington aren't of people who most others would recognize.) Instead, these images were taken from normal women who unlocked and handed over their phones to a police officer.

But even as the Supreme Court works to make smartphones more secure from police officers, other judges have made it easier for them to gain access to these devices. A judge in Virginia ruled last week that police could make suspects unlock smartphones secured via fingerprints, like recent iPhones, without having to obtain a warrant. Phones secured with passcodes would still require one, though, which means that people who want to keep information away from police would do well not to rely on the iPhone's biometric sensor as their only security tool.

People shouldn't have to worry about that. They shouldn't have to be afraid that their entire lives are going to be laid bare to the police just because they use a fingerprint to unlock their smartphone instead of relying on a passcode. It's clear that the Supreme Court thinks that a smartphone is personal enough to warrant protection from the police, and it's easy to see why -- especially when there are countless officers like Harrington abusing their power like this.

A badge shouldn't make it easier to steal private photographs. Let's hope that the court's ruling leads to meaningful change and that other judges won't continue to undermine it by saying that asking someone to unlock a phone is the same as requesting a handwriting sample. It's not. And anyone wondering why just needs to consider these women and the fact that a handwriting sample doesn't lead to someone's nude photographs being taken and shared with other officers.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]