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So, Hey, The Police Can Totally Impersonate You On Your Phone

By / 07.20.12

You know how we rely on the courts to, you know, protect us? Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t do that in cases where they don’t understand how certain technologies work.

Judges in Washington recently ruled that it’s not only OK for police to go through cell phones they’ve seized without a warrant, it’s OK for them to text, say, the customers of drug dealers and see if they can’t squeeze a few more arrests out of a bust that way.

“There is no long history and tradition of strict legislative protection of a text message sent to, displayed, and received from its intended destination, another person’s iPhone,” [Judge Joel] Penoyar wrote in his decision. He pointed to a 1990 case in which the police seized a suspected drug dealer’s pager as an example. The officers observed which phone numbers appeared on the pager, called those numbers back, and arranged fake drug purchases with the people on the other end of the line.

You know, because that’s totally the same as going through somebody’s texts.

The key problem here isn’t that the phone was exploding with texts about how people totally wanted drugs — the problem is that the detective in the case went through, looked for likely customers, and sent them a text asking if they wanted more drugs. In other words, without the police action, those guys never would have been that supermarket parking lot in the first place.

What’s really at stake here is whether or not the cops can seize your phone and use that to collect information. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and the question is whether scrolling through a phone is such. So far the courts are in disagreement, except in one case we’ve covered extensively: the police are not allowed to arrest you, take your phone, and delete videos and pictures of the police doing their jobs.

So, they’re accountable? Sort of?

image courtesy Fairfax County on Flickr


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