Even activating a suspect’s phone lock screen could be illegal, judge rules

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iPhone X lock screen notifications
You need the right warrant to do this.
Photo: Apple

Judge John Coughenour of the U.S. District Court in Seattle has ruled that FBI is not allowed to even look at the lock screen on a suspect’s smartphone without a warrant, Ars Technica reports.

The case involves a man from Washington state arrested in May last year, indicted on charges of robbery and assault. During the investigation, the FBI took a photo of the suspect’s phone lock screen, which had information they considered to be of interest. However, this behavior has been classed as unlawful.

“The FBI physically intruded on [suspect Joseph Sam’s] personal effect when the FBI powered on his phone to take a picture of the phone’s lock screen,” Judge Coughenour noted.

He said that this counts as a search under the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unlawful searches and seizures. The FBI had no warrant for a search. It was therefore unconstitutional. The ruling suggests that just activating a phone to power it on counts as a search. That is despite the fact that there was no attempt to bypass the lock screen.

Illegal or not: Another complication in the case

Interestingly, there is another wrinkle to the case. Suspect Joseph Sam says that police powered on his phone to the lock screen when they arrested him. However, the report does not mention them trying to unlock the handset. Judge Coughenour observed that police are allowed to carry out searches without a warrant under special circumstances.

Looking at a person’s phone lock screen could potentially be allowable as “part of the police’s efforts to inventory the personal effects” of whoever they are arresting. You can read the judge’s ruling for the case here.

Being such a contentious area, this almost certainly isn’t the end of this issue. Smartphones are home to an astonishing amount of personal data, which makes them invaluable for investigators. Just this week, there was a report about new spyware used by law enforcement. This spyware can be used to trick suspects into giving up their login details without their knowledge. It’s still an interesting point in the ongoing battle, however.