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Mass Extraction: The Widespread  Power of U.S. Law Enforcement to Search Mobile Phones

Every day, law enforcement agencies across the country search thousands of cellphones, typically incident to arrest. To search phones, law enforcement agencies use mobile device forensic tools (MDFTs), a powerful technology that allows police to extract a full copy of data from a cellphone — all emails, texts, photos, location, app data, and more — which can then be programmatically searched. As one expert puts it, with the amount of sensitive information stored on smartphones today, the tools provide a “window into the soul.”

This report documents the widespread adoption of MDFTs by law enforcement in the United States. Based on 110 public records requests to state and local law enforcement agencies across the country, our research documents more than 2,000 agencies that have purchased these tools, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We found that state and local law enforcement agencies have performed hundreds of thousands of cellphone extractions since 2015, often without a warrant. To our knowledge, this is the first time that such records have been widely disclosed.

Every American is at risk of having their phone forensically searched by law enforcement.

Law enforcement use these tools to investigate not only cases involving major harm, but also for graffiti, shoplifting, marijuana possession, prostitution, vandalism, car crashes, parole violations, petty theft, public intoxication, and the full gamut of drug-related offenses. Given how routine these searches are today, together with racist policing policies and practices, it’s more than likely that these technologies disparately affect and are used against communities of color.

The emergence of these tools represents a dangerous expansion in law enforcement’s investigatory powers. In 2011, only 35% of Americans owned a smartphone. Today, it’s at least 81% of Americans. Moreover, many Americans — especially people of color and people with lower incomes — rely solely on their cellphones to connect to the internet. For law enforcement, “[m]obile phones remain the most frequently used and most important digital source for investigation.”

We believe that MDFTs are simply too powerful in the hands of law enforcement and should not be used. But recognizing that MDFTs are already in widespread use across the country, we offer a set of preliminary recommendations that we believe can, in the short-term, help reduce the use of MDFTs. These include:

  • banning the use of consent searches of mobile devices,
  • abolishing the plain view exception for digital searches,
  • requiring easy-to-understand audit logs,
  • enacting robust data deletion and sealing requirements, and
  • requiring clear public logging of law enforcement use.

 

Of course, these recommendations are only the first steps in a broader effort to minimize the scope of policing, and to confront and reckon with the role of police in the United States. This report seeks to not only better inform the public regarding law enforcement access to mobile phone data, but also to recenter the conversation on how law enforcement’s use of these tools entrenches police power and exacerbates racial inequities in policing.

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For the full paper (PDF) Press Here

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By Logan Koepke, Emma Weil, Urmila Janardan, Tinuola Dada and Harlan Yu

October 2020, Published on Upturn

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