Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling from 2018, most of the evidence that might be hidden on a suspect’s phone is only accessible with some sort of warrant. Now, a Seattle judge is extending these protections even further.
That’s the verdict of a case uncovered in a new Ars Technica report, which ruled that federal officials need a warrant to not only access, say, the location data or contact info on a suspect’s phone, but just to access their lock screen, as well.
To give a bit of background here: the case in question involved Joseph Sam, a Washington state resident who was indicted on a few charges related to robbery and assault in May, 2019. When Sam was arrested, he alleged that one of the cops apprehending him snatched his Motorola smartphone, pulling up the device’s lock screen which was emblazoned with the name “Streezy,” and could, allegedly, be used as evidence against Sam in the case. As the court docket details, this wasn’t a matter of trying to unlock the phone in some way, as much as it was the officers trying to discern the phone’s make and model, and to put the phone into “aeroplane mode” to prevent it from being wiped remotely.
Then, in February of this year, FBI officials picked up the case. As part of their investigation, they snapped their own photo of the lock screen—and the “Streezy” banner—as evidence against Sam. His lawyer, in turn, argued that this sort of lock screen-based evidence shouldn’t have been reaped without a warrant—and the courts agreed.
As the ruling explains, while the police officers conducting the initial arrest might’ve had a probable reason to access Sam’s lock screen—like, say, “as part of the police’s efforts to inventory the personal effects,” the FBI’s snooping deserved more scrutiny. In particular, the official’s decision to stomp into Sam’s lock screen specifically as a way to gather evidence in the case against him, was also a decision to stomp into a piece of property that’s “constitutionally protected” under the fourth amendment—just like every other piece of mobile phone-based data.
Put another way, flipping on Sam’s lock screen means that FBI officials “searched” a piece of his protected property without a warrant—which is 100% unconstitutional.
It’s surprising that it’s taken the courts this long to come to this decision—particularly considering the embarrassing or downright incriminating notifications and messages that might be posted up there. And considering how federal officials aren’t strangers to doing anything they can to wring incriminating intel from a suspect’s phone, this is a good reminder to keep those alerts under wraps.