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Police and federal investigators now need a warrant to look at your iPhone’s Lock screen

2020 May 22
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The police can no longer look at your iPhone”s Lock screen without a warrant.

Start off by reading this ArsTechnica backgrounder:

Usually when the topic of a phone search comes up in court, the question has to do with unlocking. Generally, courts have held that law enforcement can compel you to use your body, such as your fingerprint (or your face), to unlock a phone but that they cannot compel you to share knowledge, such as a PIN. In this recent case, however, the FBI did not unlock the phone. Instead, they only looked at the phone’s lock screen for evidence.

Accessing location data generated by your phone has required a warrant since 2018, and now it seems that the same rules will apply to just turning your phone on. This became evident after Joseph Sam got arrested in May 2019 and indicted on robbery and assault charges complained to his attorneys that an officer during his arrest attempted to read the contents of his phone’s Lock screen.

What is known is that on February 13, 2020, the FBI removed Mr. Sam’s phone from inventory, powered the phone on and took a photograph of the Lock screen. The photograph shows the name ‘STREEZY’ right underneath the time and date.

Judge John Coughenour in a district court in Seattle has ruled that the police were not within their rights to conduct this search without a warrant.

The FBI therefore ‘searched’ the phone within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. And because the FBI conducted the search without a warrant, the search was unconstitutional.

The judge argued that the very act of powering on Sam’s phone by investigators to take a picture of Lock screen was the same as the FBI physically intruding on his personal effect.

The police’s examination took place either incident to a lawful arrest or as part of the police’s efforts to inventory the personal effects found during Mr. Sam’s arrest. The FBI’s examination, by contrast, occurred long after the police had arrested Mr. Sam and inventoried his personal effects.

Even though federal investigators are permitted to conduct a search at the time of arrest without a warrant, they do need a warrant to do a search later — and that includes even looking at a phone’s Lock screen — according to the ruling [PDF document].

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution says a warrant is needed to search your phone.

In a nutshell, the judge has determined that gathering evidence from a phone’s Lock screen constitutes a search. As a result, police risk violating the 4th Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, in case they look at a phone’s Lock screen without a warrant after arrest.

If you think you may find yourself in a similar situation, you should disable notification previews on the Lock screen (at the expense of user convenience) by going to Settings → Notifications → Show Previews and choosing the option Never.

On a related note, the Fifth Amendment also covers right against self-incrimination, which prohibits the police from coercing a suspect into reveal their phone passcode. However, courts have ruled that a suspect can indeed be compelled to unlock their phone via Touch ID.

What do you make of this Lock screen ruling?

Let us know in the comments down below.

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