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What are your rights to protect your phone data from police?

Our smartphones contain nearly all the details of our lives, and that makes them an attractive target for law enforcement if someone is suspected or accused of a crime.

Cell phones hold gigabytes of data tracking personal information, conversations as well as the things that we purchase. That’s why it’s crucial to understand how police can use it against you.

Two typical methods for law enforcement to get your data

Judges and attorneys rely on a mishmash of laws predating smartphone technology for rulings over access to this information. The two most common ways police get your data are:

Through third parties: Most of us back up our phones to servers located elsewhere and managed by companies. For example, if your iPhone data is on the iCloud, the government may be able to get the stored data from Apple.

  • How are you protected?: The Fourth Amendment protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures, and a provision in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 mandates that law enforcement must get the proper warrant, subpoena or court order to gain access.

Directly from your phone: Police often attempt to take information directly from your smartphone by using passcode cracking tools like GrayKey or Cellebrite to bypass a passcode – again, if they have the proper court order.

  • How are you protected?: Biometric unlocking features, such as fingerprints or facial recognition, may be your best friend to keep police from viewing your data. Additionally, the Fifth Amendment protects you from incriminating yourself. Civil rights advocates say this means, in some cases, you can’t be compelled by police to unlock your phone.

Laws are unclear over protecting phone data

Many cases over smartphone data are decided by legal arguments that are decades or even centuries old. Many of these cases were intended to address access to paper documents, while smartphones contain a tremendous amount of data. If the police want to access your cell phone, an experienced criminal defense attorney here in Pennsylvania will protect your rights to keep that information private.


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