When most of us here words like forensics, we picture an episode of CSI or NCIS. We think of ballistics results form a murder scene or fingerprints on a gun. An iPhone or iPad isn’t the first automatic visual that comes to mind. Yet more and more iPhones and iPads are becoming the subjects of forensic investigations according to warrants issued via the U.S. federal court system.
The federal court system lists 50 warrant’s granted for forensic examination of an iPhone over the past three years and five for examination of an iPad in the past year. Those numbers come from the federal court’s online PACER system, which provides information about federal court records. As noted by GigaOm’s Jeff John Roberts, those results don’t include any state or local investigations, for which there is no federal records system.
For privacy and civil liberties groups like the EFF, EPIC, and ACLU, the increasing number of warrants being issued can be considered a good thing because it shows that officers and agents are adhering to the fourth amendment’s protection from unreasonable search and seizure when it comes to suspicions about data on the devices.
That’s good news, but there’s also bad news. If a man is arrested, police are allowed to search him and anything on him without a warrant. This can lead to additional charges if something like drugs or weapons are found. Increasingly, such searches include the data on personal devices like an iPhone. Whether such searches are legal under the U.S. Constitution hasn’t been definitively decided at this point. Some courts say yes, other say no.
Then there’s the legal gray area around police use of data extraction devices for mobile phones such as those from Cellbrite, which can extract all data from a mobile device (including an iPhone) including deleted files, messages, and apps. The ACLU raised concerns about such devices last year with regards to Michigan State Police.
Given the personal information that iOS devices often contain – not to mention an increasing amount of business data, privacy groups are right to be concerned. This is another are where existing law and protections have yet to catch up with technology. Ultimately, these issues will end up being decided by the Supreme Court, though it might be a while for the court hears, considers, and renders verdicts about the array of issues still outstanding when it comes to iPhones and iPads.