When digital innovation and law enforcement intersect, it can make for a powerful tool to solve crimes. But if used warrantless and unsupervised, it raises a debate over data privacy and effective policing.
A report by Upturn, a group advancing technological equity and justice, revealed widespread purchase and adoption of mobile device forensic tools (MDFTs) across over 2,000 government agencies nationwide.
Much like a “window into the soul,” as an expert puts it, MDFTs can access the full gamut of information in a mobile phone. A file that a person thinks they deleted or hid can still be retrievable. This all-seeing function means no one may be immune from a programmatic search.
MDFTs’ risky impact
While the Riley v. California case led to a landmark decision that rendered warrantless cellphone searches unconstitutional, an emerging trend now allows police officials to search phones, incident to arrest or upon the person’s consent.
Police officials often use MDFTs to establish proof in a range of criminal offenses – car accidents, vandalism, shoplifting, theft and drug-related cases.
From extraction and analysis to decryption of an alleged offender’s contacts, geolocation history, passwords, photos, videos and other sensitive data, MDFTs may pose significant threats by:
- Going beyond the scope of the investigation and using acquired information for unrelated purposes
- Widening disparities in possibly discriminatory practices against diversity dimensions, such as race and gender
- Unlocking power struggles, especially with several agencies not having clear and meaningful policies
The Upturn research also recommends addressing potential drawbacks when MDFTs land on abusive hands. But it also recognizes the need for further studies on improving the narrative on public safety through properly managed use of digital tools.
MDFTs’ evolving role
Law enforcement continues to adapt to the times in fighting crime. But critics express their concerns and call to weigh the risks of using these modern tools. Since the use of MDFTs is still evolving, an alleged offender must speak with their counsel to help them understand. This way, they can protect their rights during the investigation.