California Cops Passed Around Explicit Photos Harvested From Arrestees' Phones

from the precinct-office-as-frat-house dept

Another argument for default phone encryption: to keep criminals from accessing your personal photos and sharing them with others.

CHP Officer Sean Harrington, 35, of Martinez… confessed to stealing explicit photos from the cellphone of a second Contra Costa County DUI suspect in August and forwarding those images to at least two CHP colleagues. The five-year CHP veteran called it a “game” among officers, according to an Oct. 14 search warrant affidavit.

That this criminal (and his criminal cohorts) happened to wear a uniform makes him no less of a criminal. The difference here is that the phone containing the photos wasn’t stolen by a criminal but rather seized during a DUI arrest and accessed during booking.

[T]he investigation began with a single incident: Harrington’s conduct during the Aug. 29 arrest of the San Ramon woman. The woman discovered that photos had been stolen from her phone five days after her release, when she noticed on her iPad that the photos had been sent to an unknown number. A record of the messages had been deleted from her iPhone, but the phone had been synced to the iPad.

In his investigation, Holcombe compared video surveillance and time-stamped text messages from the woman’s phone and determined Harrington was in possession of the woman’s phone at the moment the photos were forwarded. The woman — who registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.29 percent, more than three times the legal limit — was being processed in the Martinez County Jail when the photos were stolen, according to court records.

Not an isolated incident. Officer Shawn Harrington called it a “game.” Harrington says other officers at the Dublin precinct routinely distributed pictures from phones of female arrestees. Images were forwarded to other officers and “non-CHP individuals.” Court documents also describe a second incident in which Harrington forwarded images from a DUI arrestee’s phone while she was being x-rayed.

Encryption by default keeps criminals out of people’s phones, even the criminals that hide behind uniforms and the color of law. The same goes for the warrant requirement recently ordered by the US Supreme Court. In a typical DUI arrest, there’s really no reason for a cop to be going through the suspect’s phone. Evidence of drunk driving is usually contained within the arrestees themselves, not their phones. At best, any time a cop does this, it’s a fishing expedition for bigger charges. At worst, it’s Harrington and his complicit bro cops, passing around nudie pics just because they can. Access and ability are the worst enablers.

When cops complain about falling behind in the tech race while arguing against warrant requirements and encryption, one wonders whether this isn’t part of the “problem.” It’s not so much that the criminals have gotten smarter than the cops. It’s that the phones have. The incidents leading to Officer Harrington’s arrest both created digital paper trails leading back to the California Highway Patrol. The minimal effort made to cover his tracks wasn’t enough. Maybe this is why some cops fear the relentless forward march of technology: covering up misconduct has never been harder.

Going beyond the relation of these incidents to both search warrants and encryption-by-default, this episode of casual power abuse also implicates another hot button topic located at the intersection of policework and technology: revenge porn.

Scott Greenfield points out a couple of flaws in the plan to criminalize revenge porn, both highlighted by Officer Harrington and his coworkers’ abuse of arrested citizens.

An aspect of the push for new laws criminalizing intimate conduct that hasn’t been given much attention is the underlying assumption that if such laws are enacted, they will not only be enforced, but they will be enforced by law enforcement with a level of trust and respect for the delicate subject matter and the sensibilities of the victims.

Well, these CHP officers sort of ruined that.

Not to paint cops with too broad a brush, but, ahem, some of them aren’t a whole lot better than those “frat boys” or MRAs you think so poorly of. In fact, some are pretty awful when it comes to respecting the physical integrity of female suspects, trading off sex acts for arrest because they can.

And so your grand scheme to save the internet from angry males bent on revealing the private, intimate images of women, is to turn to the guys who steal private, intimate images of women and share them amongst themselves?

So, there’s that. And that’s on top of the nearly-universal complaint that police officers don’t take sexual assualt complaints seriously enough. Incidents like these aren’t going to encourage more victims to step forward or give them the confidence needed to pursue wrongdoers. At his point, the local PD look like just another place to be victimized.

Going beyond the misconduct and abuse, there’s the blind spot advocates of criminalizing revenge porn continue to induldge: the assumption that turning something into a crime will be a massive deterrent.

The idea that creating a crime will serve as a disincentive for people to post intimate images on the internet may make a lot more sense in theory than it does in practice. Of course, maybe you trust that the “new professionalism” will protect you from the ravages of improper distribution of images. But then again, it didn’t stop the California Highway Patrol cops from doing so, even though it was clearly illegal for them to steal the images off suspects’ cellphones to pass around as part of their game.

If those on the inside are not appreciably “better” than those on the outside, then incentives and deterrents mean nothing. This abuse may be limited to a few California peace officers, or it may be far more common that any law enforcement agency would like to admit. (The CHP has already issued a statement basically declaring this to be completely isolated to its Dublic precinct, rather than the more widespread “game” Officer Harrington alleges it to be.) The underlying number of abusive incidents doesn’t matter (much). This incident — isolated or not — just provides more ammo for those pushing encryption and warrant requirements. Law enforcement should need to make an effort before obtaining access, preferably an effort that creates a paper trail.

For those pushing revenge porn laws, this incident should temper expectations. Chances are it won’t, not because it may not be indicative of the general law enforcement mentality, but because many of those advocating this sort of legislation tend to value emotional arguments over pragmatic reasoning. A deterrent is only as solid as those enforcing it. And if the enforcers are willing to casually violate existing laws as part of a “game,” there can be little hope that they’re the best equipped to pursue revenge porn law violators.

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Comments on “California Cops Passed Around Explicit Photos Harvested From Arrestees' Phones”

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David says:

Re: Re:

Because your work is quite more predetermined? Law officers have their work shaped by the daily crimes they encounter and need to react flexibly. For example, had they booked a 70-year old fogie, searching his phone for racy selfies would have likely been a waste of time better spent otherwise.

They can’t really be everywhere at once, even though they try their hardest.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Cops can shoot an innocent kid and not get charged.

Not for long. Everyone and their dog has a cell phone, often auto-uploading content to “cloud storage.” It’s even gone Hollywood. I just watched a Wahlberg/Crowe movie (“Broken City”?) where the mayor was trying to extort an ex-cop with long ago captured evidence of his vigilantism.

Not a great movie I thought, and I couldn’t bother to get farther than half way through it. As the mayor was using a VCR to do it, I suspect the movie may be a few years old. Just think what could be done today!1! 🙂

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You have “the risk of getting fired.”

Well, when you think about it, if you’re a cop, what’s worse: getting fired, or getting shot?

We biatch all the time about cops (“the authoritays”) doing bad stuff, but they’re still the ones on the front line going up against serious firepower. Yeah, they signed up willingly and take pride in the uniform, yada yada. That doesn’t mean they have a death wish. Some of those they regularly go up against seriously out gun them. Think about that episode in the ’90s when bad guys showed up to do a bank job armed to the teeth wearing bullet resistant body armor.

I wouldn’t want that job. That’s not to say I can absolve them of a lot of crap some of them do these days, but it’s not like the job’s as easy to do as most of our jobs.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

We biatch all the time about cops (“the authoritays”) doing bad stuff, but they’re still the ones on the front line going up against serious firepower

Been playing too much Payday 2?

Situations involving serious firepower are pretty rare, and if SWAT teams were used only for proper hostage-barricade situations, sure.

But the police murder more innocents by far than they are murdered by criminals. Of course, the FBI is resistant to actually produce statistics to that effect even though they’re required by national law to keep track.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Been playing too much Payday 2?

I’m a tech, but I’m not a gamer (cf. “fritterware; it lets you fritter your life away”). I’ve never heard of that.

Situations involving serious firepower are pretty rare …

Yeah, but if you’re a cop, you’ve no idea what any call’s going to lead to. Your job is to deal with the messes we create, whether that’s a puking drunk, or an OD-ing meth head, or a petty thief, or a real thief, or (theoretically) a criminal mastermind, … Those like me think, “Hope for the best, but expect the worst.” Were I a cop, I’d do the same.

Yes, I strongly agree the current militarization of cops is far from what ought to be happening. They’re “Peace Officers”, ffs. If they can’t handle what they’re looking at, call in the military!

I’ve never had trouble with cops. I’m caucasian and I’m respectful and polite, and I’m not in the USA, so that’s no surprise.

All I’m suggesting is despite some (many?) bad apples, cops are generally not the Nazi thugs many netters presume them to be. Hell, I’d even blame the deficient training they get before I’d blame them personally in a lot of cases.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I know how every one loves analogies on tech sites, so here goes.

Good cop = Fine wine
Bad cop = sewage

You add a glass of fine wine to a barrel of sewage, you have a barrel of sewage.

You add a glass of sewage to a barrel of fine wine and you have a barrel of sewage.

There are no good cops, because they turn a blind eye for the bad cops.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Fine wine vs. Sewage

Though I think the adage works well generally, less so practically.

During a tour of the Beaulieu Vineyards, I was shown their 10,000 liter fermentation tanks, after which wine is stored in barrels of about the same size. Some where actually wood, but they were huge.

500 ml of sewage (a generous tumbler) introduced into 10,000 liters of fine wine will yield… slightly less fine wine. In fact all our drinking water, wine, whatever, has some sewage in it, but such trace amounts that it practically doesn’t count.

Given enough wine, the sewage doesn’t matter so much.

But like Ostriches digging in the sand, the metaphor, spurious or otherwise, remains useful.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Cops are higher caste citizens.

Yes. They. Are.

Here in the US our law enforcement agents are exactly the Nazi thugs we expect them to be, whether they’re shooting people and letting them bleed on the street, or beating up grandmothers or slow-cooking an inmate in the prison showers (turned up to scalding) until his fucking skin falls off.

Every bit of evidence indicates they are, given they like to shoot first, or attack first or whatever, and seize cameras later, usually by force of arms. We get to see the incidents in which cameras escape.

And if a cop is attacked and dies and his assailant escapes, we get to watch a manhunt the likes of which makes news history. No, being a cop is remarkably safe, because if you attack one, your comeuppance, misery and painful demise is assured by a fraternal order and an army.

Incidentally, the MPDC (Washington DC precinct) has a little over 100 fallen officers in the line of duty since 1871. Since 2000, citywide, they’ve lost seven officers.

I think you overestimate the danger cops face.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

All I’m suggesting is despite some (many?) bad apples, cops are generally not the Nazi thugs many netters presume them to be. Hell, I’d even blame the deficient training they get before I’d blame them personally in a lot of cases.

Did you people not see this?

I agree there’s lots of other professions which are as dangerous, or more, but cops == Nazi thugs? Come on. No, they shouldn’t be considering us all to be “terrists” by default and reaching for SWAT as their first option, but equating cops to SA (Sturmabteilung) is not helping anyone.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 US Law Enforcement compared to Nazi Thugs

No, you can re-assert your position all you want, but I think that the behavior of US Law Enforcement officers perfectly resembles quite a bit of thuggish behavior for which various Nazi services were renowned, whether we are speaking of the blatant disregard for humanity by the Schutzstaffel to the open brutality of the Geheime Staatspolizei. The best comparison, I think, is to the Freikorps during the Weimar crisis, before the rise of Rohm, Hitler and the Nazi party, as they were truly above the law where Nazi enforcement was pretty strictly regulated.

Perhaps you overestimate the transgressions of various peacekeeping services of the Third Reich, or you are unaware of the number of transgressions or the heinousness of police violence here in the US. Regardless, the conditions that allow for these horrors are the same, namely peacekeeping and law-enforcement services that are, themselves, above the law.

There were good SS, to be sure. There were well-intended Gestapo and Brownshirts, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of what happened then and there is happening here and now. It really is just that bad, and potentially worse. Attrocious police violence is likely happening in your county on a daily basis.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“We biatch all the time about cops (“the authoritays”) doing bad stuff, but they’re still the ones on the front line going up against serious firepower.”

And yet, being a cop isn’t even in the top 10 most dangerous occupations, but you don’t hear anyone who works in one of the many much more dangerous jobs using that as an excuse to engage in terrible behavior.

Scote (profile) says:

Re: Encryption woudn't help here

“If you’ve been following this story, you know that the women had unlocked her phone for the office (or given him the unlock code) so that he could retrieve a phone number for her. It doesn’t seem that encryption would have made a bit of difference here.”

That’s a very important point to make. The woman needed a phone number off of her phone, so she had to give up the password because the cops won’t just hand her the phone.

I’d say that password access control and encryption probably have prevented a lot more abuse like this from happening, but that the cops also have a lot of power to force the password out of people.

What this case shows isn’t merely the need for encryption, but that we need multiple levels of access control. We don’t memorize phone numbers like we used to because our phones do that for us (and emails, too), so we have to unlock our phones to contact people, and that makes our phones vulnerable to cops who, for personal or police business, can game that fact to gain access to locked phones unless we have more than one level of password control.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Encryption woudn't help here

Actually, the “Private Mode” on the new Samsung phones(My Note 4 has it) is a great start. I have no idea how good the encryption on it is but it would probably have prevented something like this. Basically, you enable “Private Mode” via a password or other security (different from your normal phone unlock” and, once enabled, most of your phone’s files can be hidden from other users.

What’s nice about this is that you can hide certain files, for example a list of passwords, banking information, nude pictures, personal notes, etc., but still allows access to everything else. The private stuff doesn’t show up at all unless you enable the mode.

This would have allowed the individual to still let the police unlock her phone and call but not have access to personal pictures. It’s handy for other things, too, like showing your girlfriend’s mother a picture of your dog without worrying about whether or not she’s also going to see the naked pictures you took of her daughter =).

There are third party apps that do this as well but I hope making this a default phone capability becomes standard, especially as people start using standard smartphones more and more for business.

Anonymous Coward says:

If the cops wanted to see this drunk woman naked they could have easily done so without searching her telephone and hoping to hit paydirt. Many police stations force arrestees to change cloths in a room full of hidden cameras. Jail cells are usually filmed, including the toilet. And if cops want “hands on” action, they can find an excuse to do a full body cavity search.

Become a cop, and get your porn for free.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It’s not about the porn.

As you’ve astutely observed, better porn is available for free on the Internet 24×7 and in such incredibly breadth and depth that one could spend years engrossed in it and not see a repeat photo/video/whatever.

This is about power. This is cops doing it because they can. Whether it’s because they’ve been badly trained or because they’re innately bullies, I don’t know. But when they find themselves in positions of power over other people, they exert that power with little, if any, regard for the rights, feelings, lives, futures, emotions or consequences for those people.

This is why we see already-subdued suspects tortured with tasers. This is why we see already-incapacitated people pumped full of bullets. This is why we see unarmed protestors gassed, clubbed, and beaten. This is why we see people who call suicide hotlines taken out with SWAT teams (yes, really, it happened in Utah last week).

And so on. This particular methodology happens to involve personal photos, but it’s just one aspect of a far larger problem: increasingly, police believe that they are above the law, and increasingly, they are right. We’ve given them authority and we’ve armed them — and in the last ten years we’ve really armed them — without giving them the corresponding training in humility, restraint, respect, service and priorities.

“Protect and serve” is long gone. “Exploit and harass” is the norm.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

This is why we see people who call suicide hotlines taken out with SWAT teams …

Holy !@#$. I’ll look into that, thanks.

I suppose if there was a potential murder-suicide in progress, perhaps there was a need to involve SWAT, but they (suicide hotlines) are supposed to be there to help save people from rash actions they’ve reconsidered. SWAT should be the last option.

Anonymous Coward says:

Cops also don’t like encryption because then they can’t delete photo’s and video’s that incriminate them. They love the current he said/she said where they get the benefit of the doubt because they are LEO’s. This is just another example of why their word is no better than anyone else and sometimes much worse…

Oblate (profile) says:

Need deterrent?

Here’s an idea for deterrent- Anyone caught posting revenge porn or forwarding intimate pictures illegally will, as punishment, have pictures of them in a position, state of dress, and using one “household implement” of the victims choosing. Victim will also have the option of photoshopping in one farm animal. One such picture shall be created for each picture forwarded or posted. All such pictures shall be posted on a website created for this purpose, and shall also be prominently placed on all social media accounts the perpetrator uses for not less than 1 month.

I think the possibility of suffering the same effects as their victim would deter many criminals.

hij (profile) says:

Re: Need deterrent?

If you really want to get nasty then anybody pulling off this sort of nonsense should be subjected to the harassment of the most aggressive copyright lawyers of any of the *IAA organizations. I for one would love to see the look of fear in the face of a CA Highway Patrol officer when he sees one of those undead creatures walk into the room on Halloween.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Hope for a who-cares society:

We’re getting closer and closer to technology that can automatically extrapolate from photos a human being skin map and 3D model. From there, it’s only one small step to film a few performances by porn actors in mo-cap suits (from all directions, ideally) so that we could create any explicit paring we wanted.

It may take as much before we can, as a society, get over someone getting their private bits revealed on the internet, or being caught with someone else in flagrante delicto.

Once enough of this porn-dev media is available, it will become a point of plausible deniability. I did not have sexual relations with that woman — It was a render.

It may not stop perv-cops from ogling your junk-shots, but it might stop it from mattering once they download it on /b/.

Robert Therrien says:

California Cops Passed Around Explicit Photos

Arrest those cops, give them their day in court, and when they are found guilty, sentence them to more time than an individual citizen would be sentenced. As they broke the trust of the people they were supposed to protect and serve. Abusing one’s power to commit crimes should add at least 10 years to the sentence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: California Cops Passed Around Explicit Photos

I’ve been wondering if this might be (the start) of a good general solution to the cops-on-power-trip problem. Why not have a “police officer multiplier?” If they are convicted of a crime while acting as an officer, they get 2x the sentence of a normal person. They are given extra power; they should be held to a higher standard. This won’t, of course, solve the problem that police officers never get convicted in the first place…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: California Cops Passed Around Explicit Photos

I think this is a structural problem that goes way beyond having the political will to regulate the police. How do you set up a truly independent office that won’t be quickly subverted by regulatory capture? Even disregarding blatant corruption and malice, the people with the training/interest/expertise to investigate people will be … cops. Short of mob violence, which is in nobody’s interest, what would proper accountability even look like?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: California Cops Passed Around Explicit Photos

How do you set up a truly independent office that won’t be quickly subverted by regulatory capture?

“Mississippi’s Burning” provides the way. The FBI investigated murders perpetrated or condoned or covered up by lower level local cops. Good thing the FBI had good cops who had enough humanity in them to be appalled at what the locals did.

It may not “scale” to infinity (what if the FBI’s corrupt too?), but (Rolling Stones), “You get what you need.”

David says:

Re: Re: Re:2 California Cops Passed Around Explicit Photos

It may not “scale” to infinity (what if the FBI’s corrupt too?)

It most certainly does not scale to the top since the Department of “Justice” is about the most corrupt one in the history of the U.S. right now. That seriously decreases the incentives for fighting corruption in lower layers since you don’t know just which feet you might step on in the higher layers. Nobody has your back.

Anonymous Coward says:

“confessed to stealing explicit photos from the cellphone of a second Contra Costa County DUI suspect”

Wait a second. So in this case, taking a digital file or image is stealing but taking a musical digital file from an artist or record label isn’t stealing?

I mean, the woman still had her picture on her phone, right? It wasn’t really stolen from her. She still has use of it, right?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m pretty sure the double standard in effect at techdirt is that if it’s personal and digital it can be stolen, but if it’s commercial and digital it can’t be.

If i’m wrong and any of the thespians here care to correct that interpretation, please do so because i’d like to get to the bottom of this one.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Wait a second. So in this case, taking a digital file or image is stealing but taking a musical digital file from an artist or record label isn’t stealing?


I’m pretty sure the double standard in effect at techdirt is that if it’s personal and digital it can be stolen, but if it’s commercial and digital it can’t be.

Are you unfamiliar with direct quotes? Because the blockquote formatting (along with the italics) indicate the block of text you’re both referring to came from an article WRITTEN BY A NON-TECHDIRT WRITER AT ANOTHER SITE THAT ISN’T TECHDIRT.

So, no one here said anything was stolen. Not only are your high horses horribly undersized, but they’re also dangerously stupid.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Here’s what he admitted to, in court:

Harrington told investigators he had done the same thing to female arrestees a “half dozen times in the last several years,” according to the court records, which included leering text messages between Harrington and his Dublin CHP colleague, Officer Robert Hazelwood.

So this is anything but an ‘isolated incident’, he’s been doing it for years now, and even admitted to it.

Now here’s the ‘punishment’ he’s currently facing:

…and the CHP confirmed that one of its officers, a 5-year veteran, has been placed on “administrative duties” and is not on patrol, although they did not mention Harrington by name. Deputy district attorney Barry Grove said he expects a decision about charges against officers in the CHP probe to be made next week.

Still on the force, still working normally, he’s just been shifted to a desk job. That is the ‘punishment’ he’s faced so far. Now there might be charges brought against those involved, but given how serious they’ve taken the matter so far, I don’t imagine it’ll be anything larger than a gorram misdemeanor, as they try and brush this one under the rug without actually, you know, punishing those involved.

Oh yes, the police are ever so serious about dealing with officer misconduct and law breaking. Just look at how swift they are to crack down on those officers that admit to their crimes! /s

Joe says:

I think you’re only beginning to scratch the surface on police impropriety, nationwide. With some police forces, its endemic. The worst I’ve seen was Opa Locka police down in Miami. Seemed like every few months there was some big debacle and the occasional FBI raid. How embarassing, though I suspect some “officers” in these types of departments almost wear the shame as a badge of honor.

Michael W. Perry (user link) says:

What rationale do the police have for looking at the cell phone of someone charged with DUI? They’re drunk. That’s all. Charge them and send them home. Leave their phone alone.

Perhaps phones should come with an adjustable total shutdown. Activate as you are being stopped and absolutely nothing will turn it on until that user-selected time has passed.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps phones should come with an adjustable total shutdown. Activate as you are being stopped and absolutely nothing will turn it on until that user-selected time has passed.

I’m not much interested in helping drunks evade DUI convictions (they kill people!), but maybe it should be one failed login, and it locks up for twenty-four hours. Or it asks you for a secondary pword in case of sober fat finger situations.

“Sorry ossifer [sic], I’m just too drunk to get in, and hey, you know you’re pretty cute? Hic.”

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