Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How to Protect Your Smartphone from Police

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Supreme Court of California disappointed many civil liberties advocates when they reached a 5:2 decision in People versus Diaz. The police may search phones on arrested persons without a search warrant. It’s particularly troubling. When you think of how much personal information is stored on your phone in this day and age, it’s both your best friend and could be your worst enemy if it gets into the wrong hands.

Videos, pictures, emails, text messages, contacts - all of your communications are in this one little device. So with this ruling, should we just call privacy completely dead? Or are there still a few tricks out there to keep your personal information safe?

Let’s paint the scenario. Let’s say, you get pulled over and arrested. You have your phone on with you. Now cops really can do whatever they want with it. Under the decision by the California Supreme Court along with, actually, a number of other courts over the last few years, anytime you’re arrested by the police for any reason, which could include unpaid parking tickets, driving without the seatbelt, reckless driving – the police can take your phone. And once you’re in custody under arrest, behind bars, they can spend hours trying to search through your phone. Anything they find can be used against you in court.

And that’s really scary. This tiny thing that you carry around with you, it holds so much of your personal information, every email, every text message, every picture, every video. It’s even scarier if we think how much we depend on those little things.

The courts have dealt with things like pagers for a while, but that was usually a couple of phone numbers. It’s completely different with phones. It’s incredible how much data we store on our smartphones.

The actual initial court decisions allowed this to happen to a thing like a cigarette pack. But today we’re talking about a phone. A smart phone like an iPhone contains your papers; the effects of the digital age, the things that you would once keep at home in a locked file cabinet in your desk. It’s all now vulnerable to law enforcement search without a court order, without a warrant at all. And it’s unclear what does it mean for the phone to be on your person. Does it count if it’s on the passenger’s seat, or on the console, or even in the trunk? It’s never really been tested.

It just works this way – if the phone immediately associated with your person – they can search it, no question asked, no need for what’s called exigent circumstances. But if it’s in your control but not immediately associated with your person – they can’t search it. If it’s in your luggage, they probably cannot search it unless they have a serious reason to think you’re going to destroy data on it. The precedents on this are little murky, because it’s such a new and untested area. Probably for a seatbelt or reckless driving arrest, if it’s in your glove compartment, luggage – they probably can’t search it. If it’s in your purse, however, next to you – maybe even in the seat next to you, or definitely in your pocket, then they can search it. So the goal is to get it basically as far away as you can from your person, in some separate object.

As to password on your phone, in this case the officer can’t just push a button and instantly access all the information. They can ask you, and they can even lie to you. They can say: “If you tell us your password, it’s going to help you when we go before the judge.” Remember, cops, generally speaking, don’t have to tell you the truth. 

However, and this is important, they cannot force you to hand over your password. They may ask, they may try to persuade you, but if they do force you to hand it over – then they’ve gone over the line. However, if you voluntarily disclose it – then that’s free reign for them.

Here is a bit of advice for everyone: if you’re all worried about police looking into your phone, whether or not you committed a crime, which you probably don’t know even if you have, given how many laws there are now, you should definitely password-protect your phone. It’s a great way to keep it safe. Mobile security software and especially encryption software may be of great help too.

A lot of Americans are probably saying: “I’ve nothing to hide, go ahead, and search my phone.” But a lot of us are probably guilty of committing crimes and we don’t even know it. There are so many laws these days. That’s something that is called Overcriminalization. Every year thousands of new offences are added to the books, a lot of them don’t require criminal intent. 

You can have no idea you’re doing something illegal. Then there are these horror stories like: a girl is arrested in New York City subway for eating a French fry, a woman was arrested simply for not filing the right paperwork, a grandmother. You can be arrested for a lot of things. It’s incredibly easy for the cops to find something you’ve done that’s illegal. 

Not only that, if they search your phone and they find anything incriminating – such as the guy in California, Diaz. They filed the text message that said: “6 4 80,” and that’s all it said. The police officers testified that it involved drug deal – 6 pills for 80 dollars. That, along with other factors, was enough for a criminal conviction. So, it’s really hard to know for sure that there’s nothing on your phone that might land you behind bars, given how many laws we have.

Again, after creating and enabling strong password, the next piece of advice is to actually go ahead and encrypt your phone. The problem with the password-protected phone is that it’s not encrypted. There are these tools that police can plug into your phone and in 5 minutes all the data is off your phone on their computer and they have free reign to search it. 

Encrypting is the only surefire way to make sure the police can’t access it. And they cannot force you to turn over the key. No matter what they say, you have the right to remain silent; theycannon force you to disclose any information under the 5th amendment.

[Guest Author]
--> Alex Lamman is a 25 years old software engineer, snowboarder and just a loving father from Germany.  He is Internet security addict and helps to run Privacy PC – a website which guides you through the news, reviews, tips and software needed for protection in all critical privacy and security areas. 

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