Should smartphones, owing to their complex nature, be subject to search warrants?
Today’s mobile phone is a complex beast. The data storage of modern day smartphones is akin to that of late-1990s personal computers. The telephone part of the smartphone seems to be secondary to its apps, built-in camera, video files, and its storage capacity. Back in 1999, storing 20 names on your phone was bleeding edge.
Had mobile phone surveillance been part of criminal or civil law cases eighteen years ago, the operation wouldn’t have been as complex as today’s devices. The complexity of today’s models has prompted calls from Privacy International to consider extending search warrants to today’s cellular communication devices. In a recent report, they stated that a standard search (without a search warrant) may be unsuitable.
Digital forensic equipment has been subject to anti-terrorist powers for several years. At airport terminals and with mobile phones. There has been claims that smartphones have been searched for evidence of low level activity as well as high level cases. On The Bristol Cable website, there has been claims that Avon and Somerset Police have searched devices for the former with a program known as Cellebrite.
What has piqued Privacy International is the fact that today’s smartphones are likely to have personal data. For example, family photos are likely to be taken with a smartphone camera rather than a compact camera. Also details of online transactions through apps like Google Wallet.
A US Precedent
As smartphones are not – at this moment in time – subject to search warrants, there has been complaints about missing files. Personal items especially. Privacy International cited a court case in 2014, in the US, which ruled that it was “illegal to search or seize the contents of a mobile phone without a warrant”. Could this work on these shores?
Should there be search warrants for smartphones?
Feel free to add to the debate. Your comments are much appreciated.
Forensic Assessment, 27 January 2017.