Court Rules Cops Can Impersonate You With Seized iPhone Anytime They Want

Court Rules Cops Can Impersonate You With Seized iPhone Anytime They Want

You know those annoying friends that grab your iPhone at parties and then think it’s cool to explore all your pictures, texts, phone calls, and every other crevice of your iPhone? Some people don’t understand that there’s this thing called privacy, and that you have to get permission to look through all that stuff. It’s in the constitution. Look it up.

Apparently the privacy laws that some people thought we had with our iPhones actually don’t apply to police seizures, as two recent court rulings have shown that it is totally legal for police to seize an iPhone and impersonate the owner. If your iPhone ever falls into the clutches of the police and they want to sext with your ex-girlfriend, you’re just out of luck because that’s totally legal.

A report from Ars Technica this morning revealed U.S. courts have ruled that some of the same privacy laws that apply to desktop computers do not apply to smartphones. The revelation came during a hearing for drug charges this year.

In November of 2009, police officers in Washington seized a drug dealer’s smartphone. Once the smartphone was in police custody, they decided to impersonate the drug dealer via text message to people in his address book, which then led to more drug busts. During the drug dealer’s trial they claimed the police had violated their privacy rights by intercepting, without a warrant, private communications.

As background for the legality of the polices’ impersonation though the cellphone, the judge referred back to a case in the 1990 when police seized a drug dealers cellphone and used it to gain info on other drug dealers.

A federal appeals court held that the pager owner’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were not violated because the pager is “nothing more than a contemporary receptacle for telephone numbers,” akin to an address book. The court also held that someone who sends his phone number to a pager has no reasonable expectation of privacy because he can’t be sure that the pager will be in the hands of its owner.

Judge Penoyar said that the same reasoning applies to text messages sent to an iPhone. While text messages may be legally protected in transit, he argued that they lose privacy protections once they have been delivered to a target device in the hands of the police.

So police still have to seize your iPhone legally, but once it’s in their clutches they can do whatever they want. Bummer. Ars Technica goes on to explain how cellphones currently exist in a constitutionally grey area, which is well worth the read. Desktop computers are protected by a number of laws, yet as smartphones have adopted more of the PC’s functionality, laws have failed to keep up with the changing tech.

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  • shad0ws

    so the software, (some) programs, & (most) uses of a smartphone are virtually indistinguishable from a computer — to the point where some people use iOS/Android/WinMobile devices as their primary “computers” already — but don’t get to enjoy the same level of legal protection?

    yeah, um. not only is that pretty terrible in/of itself, but presents a verrrrrrrry slippery slope.

    what happens when these functions coalesce across all devices (as is happening already with iMessage?). what happens when we’re at the point where i can choose to take a phone call on my iPhone, iPad, or MacBook, each time one comes in? will those other devices then be held to this same standard of police usage?

    my thought is: yes, they will. because we rarely gain new legal rights, & it’s certainly not as easy as losing them.

  • CGJack

    “It’s in the constitution” – No, it’s in the American constitution. Is it in the French one? Or the Canadian? Or the Australian?

  • Buster

    “It’s in the constitution” – No, it’s in the American constitution. Is it in the French one? Or the Canadian? Or the Australian?

    I was being overdramatic and silly.

  • Luis Javier Irizarry

    The point of the cases is “delivery of the message” whether it is to be perceived as privately owned information or not. As the article stated, interception of a message is illegal (i.e. wiretaps) as the intention of the message is perceived to be private in nature. However, once a message is received, there is no telling who is the actual recipient thus making the police obtaining your message rather legal instead of illegal. Now, if your phone number was privately owned or if your phone was stationed at your home and the police found evidence of a crime without a warrant, than the evidence would/can be considered admissible due to seizure without a warrant.

  • joegrivois

    If you aren’t doing something that requires being reprimanded, then there’s nothing to worry about. So what if an officer see’s that embarrassing picture you took of yourself in the bathroom mirror. Chances are, he’s/she’s more embarrassed than you are about it. If you’re going to sell illegal narcotics, then being caught is a rick you’re obviously willing to take. This is just one example – No pity, what. so. ever.

  • mr_bee

    ” … So police still have to seize your iPhone legally, but once it’s in their clutches they can do whatever they want. ”

    This conclusion isn’t warranted by the facts you describe.

  • YodaMac

    “Bummer” you say? Yeah, it’s a real bummer those despicable drug dealers are off the streets. And by your description of the “clutches of the police” I can tell exactly on which side of the law you fall.

    Seriously, this hurts nobody but the guilty. And good on them!

  • icedming

    So are they going to get a warrant to disable your cloud before you use remote wipe before they get it back to the station. Just another excuse for a cop to be a dick. All messages, emails, phone calles are stored in a server and registered to your mac id and ip address that you were using. Therefore they not what when and where. It will take longer to get info, but it would have to be something serious to warrant that type and kind of info anyways. (Privacy Haha) No one in the entire world has it. If you find it let me know.

  • technochick

    I suspect if some cop did anything other pretend to be you to lure in your drug dealer etc, the person on the other side will sue and win

  • Lane Jasper

    Legal perhaps, but after the cop pulled me over I got so nervous I suddenly forgot my 4-digit pin. Sorry officer.

  • spiffulus1

    “If your iPhone ever falls into the clutches of the police and they want to sext with your ex-girlfriend, you’re just out of luck because that’s totally legal.”

    No, it isn’t. Right now the Police have the authority to get a warrant to search your house if they think there’s a reason to do so. It doesn’t follow that they’re allowed to eat your cake and steal your underwear while they’re there.

  • copperbum

    I don’t see any problem with this. They committed a crime in the first place to have their phone siezed. Also drug dealers use their phone as a business tool, not so much a personal item.

  • davester13

    Cell phones were invented way after the US constitution was written, therefore they are not covered by said constitution. It will take a constitutional amendment for them to be recognized as being covered by said constitution.

    Good luck with that.

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Buster HeinBuster Hein is Cult of Mac's Social Media Editor. Hailing from Roswell, New Mexico, but now spending his days in Phoenix, Arizona, he wastes most of his time eating burritos and reading Spanish romance novels. Twitter: @bst3r.

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