More iPhones subject to search warrants, iPads too

A survey of court records reveals that a growing number of iPhones(s aapl) and iPads are the target of forensic examinations by federal agents. The trend shows how mobile devices are replacing computers in daily life, and also highlights ongoing search and seizure issues in the digital era.

A Spike in Search Warrants

A judge granted the first warrant to search an iPhone just months after the device was unveiled. In August of 2007, the Secret Service obtained permission to search Joseph Siddon’s phone after he was caught with dozens of fake ID’s at a Buffalo airport.

Since then, federal judges have granted many more warrants for investigations that range from bank scams to drug trafficking. The federal court system PACER shows 50 cases listing “iPhone” as the “defendant” but this number is likely higher and does not include state court cases.

The search requests have also become more frequent. While the record lists five warrants for 2009, this screenshot shows that number has been surpassed already this year:

Starting last year, federal agents began directing warrants at iPads as well. The first of these popped up in Wisconsin after an officer told a judge that “An Apple 16 GB iPad which is in the care and custody of the DEA” was likely to contain evidence about an illegal sports betting ring.

Since then, there have been at least five other federal warrants aimed at iPads.

Smartphones and the police’s data-sucking vampire

The uptick in iWarrants reflects the simple fact that seizing a smartphone or tablet can be as valuable to authorities as grabbing a crook’s hard drive.

In many cases, the payload may be even greater. Police can get not only emails and browsers histories but a also plethora of social data from apps like Twitter and Facebook — much of which is permanently baked into the device.

As law student Amanda Brill explains in a recent paper, companies like Cellbrite provide police with forensic tools that can:

“[D]ump the entirety of your phone…all of your text messages, emails, videos, and photos – even the ones you deleted – Google Map queries…web searches, passwords, call logs…your phone’s entire file system.” This information is “all timestamped, all geotagged, all providing a digital recreation of the way your physical existence projects itself into the cellular ether.”

The passage quotes tech site Gizmodo which described Cellbrite as “The Handheld Dracula that Sucks your entire life from your phone.”

Brill says the forensic technology can be deployed not only in a crime lab but “in the field” as well.

Fading Privacy rights

The reason we have search warrants in the first place is to ensure that the police and government must go through someone — a judge — before they can get into your stuff in the first place. The warrants also draw strict lines around what can and can’t be searched: Your car but not your house, for example, or your home but not your computer.

From this perspective, the surge in i-related warrants is actually a good thing. It shows that Fourth Amendment protections still exist for the places where, in the courts’ words, we have “a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Unfortunately, those protections are not holding up so well in the bigger picture.

One big problem is a rule that lets police search without a warrant in the case of an arrest. This makes sense to ensure a suspect doesn’t have weapons or contraband but it is unclear why the exception should also let cops get into the contents of a smartphone. While some courts have put brakes on this practice, others have said it is fair game.

And in the cases where there is a warrant, courts are drawing no lines around which parts of the iPhone can be searched and which cannot. This is different from computer warrants which often set limits on what investigators can look for; police in a drug investigation, for example, might be able to search a hard drive for narcotics data but not for evidence of blackmail (unless there was probably cause for that too).

It may not make sense to allow police to search some parts of an iPhone but not others. But in age where our phones contain not just our own lives but those of our friends, it’s time to start redrawing some lines.

iPhone Search Warrant Example Copy

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user [Everett Collection].