Cellphone Privacy – How secure is your data and what are your rights?

Cellphone PrivacyCellphone privacy? Living in an age of technological wonders, numerous gadgets from cellphones to GPS devices offer consumers many time saving advantages in terms of mass communication and time management. Navigation, instantaneous messaging, audio/video capturing and sharing are now commonplace as well as widespread. The boundaries and demographics of ownership cross multiple generations. Now, everyone seems to be wired, connected and on the go. The social status artificially attached to ownership of such items often dwarfs the practical reasons of ownership in the first place. In America, name brands often symbolize ones economic status in life. Combined with new features (bells & whistles), slick marketing which enables easy mass consumerism and broad appeal without concern for privacy or identity acquisition (theft) issues.

Cellphone Privacy

Can the Police Search Your Cell Phone Without a Warrant?

The California Supreme Court ruled that police do not need a warrant to search a cell phone carried by someone under arrest. The justices determined a Ventura County deputy had the right to conduct a warrant-less search of the text messages of a man he had arrested on suspicion of participating in a drug deal. The state court ruled 5-2 that U.S. Supreme Court precedent affirms that police can search items found on defendants when they are arrested. The California Supreme Court decided the loss of privacy upon arrest extends beyond the arrestee’s body to include personal property. Authorities can not only seize items but also can open and examine what they find, the ruling said.

The case stems from the arrest of defendant Gregory Diaz. A detective took the phone from Diaz’s pocket when he was arrested for trying to sell ecstasy to a police informant in 2007. The police eventually went through Diaz’s text message folder and found one that read “6 4 80.” This shorthand code means six pills will cost $80 and it was enough to be used as evidence against Diaz.

In contrast, a recent decision, in Ohio the Supreme Court has ruled that police officers need to obtain a warrant in order to search a cell phone. This decision by the Ohio Supreme Court takes into consideration the fact that cell phones today go far beyond the means of basic communication. They are mini computers that store large amounts of personal information. The court’s decision indicated that individuals using cell phones have an expectation of privacy which is protected by the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution.

The Ohio case involves a man named Antwaun Smith. He was arrested on drug charges. At the time of his arrest his cell phone was ceased and later it was searched. The police found information important to their investigation on his cell phone calling records.

In an article written by South Texas Assistant Professor Adam Gershowitz, he explains that numerous traffic violations merit a search for contraband like drugs, and search parameters extend to hand-held devices such as smartphones. If you are caught breaking certain traffic laws, not only do police have the right to search you—they can go through all your electronic data as well—your text messages, call histories, browsing history, downloaded emails and photos. This is possible since the law considers such devices like cell phones, GPS units to be closed containers that police are permitted to “open.”

A common reaction by many is the usual ignorance expressed by a citizens blatant apathy towards individual privacy. I have nothing to hide so I don’t care if they search me, my possessions, my car , my phone..etc. Most of these people don’t understand the term “over criminalization” in the USA. Anyone is guilty of some obscure crime even if they are unaware they are breaking the law. See the second video below. The other problem with this attitude lies in the complete submissiveness and passive acceptance of absolute authority. You are no longer in control and now abdicate that authority willfully and completely to another. This has a domino effect and once established, often extends to every facet of a persons life. There is no “off button” for the “pussification” (George Carlin vernacular) of the American sheep citizen.

The other obvious option and moral behind the story/case above, is if you plan on engaging in criminal activities, have the brain power and foresight to NOT invest in a smart phone. However if you do, refrain from incriminating yourself with text messages, photos and video of a dubious nature.

When I was a cadet recruit in a SWFL police academy, our PT instructors were so disenchanted with the whole cell phone subculture. I remember their total disdain during our orientation session. It was justified considering the short attention span people have around these devices ie: texting. We were not even allowed to have ANY cell phone in the academy, due mainly to the disturbance and nuisance factor. They were also considered an extreme distraction during the coursework, especially during any high liability training. You could not even keep one in the lockers. The closest location allowed was locked in your car in the parking lot. Exceptions were made in rare occasions or emergencies and cadets had to have written prior approval. This policy never bothered me. I was never a text obsessive cell phone geek. In fact, I use a Tracphone to this day which saves me a fortune monthly, with no contracts ever and I can discard or change my phone and number freely at any time.

If it is ever lost, stolen or seized in an unconstitutional manner, I could care less. Since I do not engage in texting or file exchanges, no evidence would be available to support any erroneous charges. I use the thing strictly as a phone. Can you imagine that. In this respect, any strong arm laws that surface around the cell phone subculture will have little to no effect on my privacy or my ability to remain anonymous.

Cellphone Privacy

The video below outlines some common options to protect your data in the event of an arrest encounter. Since we established the over criminalization aspect already apparent in most US states and cities, you can easily find yourself being arrested for a minor tragic violation or some obscure and mundane law. I once had a former sheriff and criminal justice professor tell the class, a good cop on a routine traffic stop will find a least a dozen reasons to pull someone over based on the condition of the vehicle and the laws on the books. Justification is the name of the game.

The rabbit hole continues….

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged the Michigan State Police (MSP) to release information regarding the use of portable devices which can be used to secretly extract personal information from cell phones during routine stops. However, the MSP says the data extraction devices are only used if they have a search warrant, or if the person allows Troopers to do so.

Several years ago, MSP acquired portable devices that have the potential to quickly download data from cell phones without the owner of the cellphone knowing. According to CelleBrite, the manufacturer of at least some of the devices acquired by MSP, the product can extract a wide variety of data from cellphones including contacts, text messages, deleted text messages, call history, pictures, audio and video recordings, phone details including the phone number and complete memory file dumps on some handsets.

Cellphone Privacy

Cellebrite UFED system Real time mobile forensics

The UFED allows you to extract a wide variety of data types including:

  • Contacts
  • SMS text messages
  • Deleted text messages (SIM/USIM)
  • Call history (Received, Dialed, Missed)
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Pictures and images
  • Ringtones
  • Phone details (IMEI / ESN, phone number)

Increasingly, data retrieved from cell phones is not only paramount to the investigative process, it is becoming key prosecutorial evidence in many cases.  For law enforcement, leveraging this valuable resource of information with Cellebrite’s UFED System ensures that you get every bit of information necessary to more effectively reach your crime solving goals. Easy to use both in the field and in lab environments, UFED extracts vital data such as phonebook, pictures, videos, text messages, call logs, ESN and IMEI information, for immediate use. It then gathers the data into reports for research and evidence, which can be used in the courtroom. 

As the leading mobile forensic solution available, law enforcement agencies worldwide rely on UFED to assist them in solving and prosecuting crime.

Anyone have any change?

Indeed, life seemed simpler in terms of privacy and anonymity when the payphone was alive and well. However, as the article below illustrates, payphones around the world are vanishing and will soon become a distant memory. Cellphones unfortunately will be a mandatory device and as technology increases proportionately, so will issues regarding privacy. The problem lies in the balance of maintaining personal freedom, against intrusive laws which utilize newer technologies under the guise of crime prevention and deterrence.