Michigan State Police Say It'll Cost $545k To Discover What Info It's Copying Off Mobile Phones During Traffic Stops [Updated]

from the that-sounds-like-extortion dept

Apparently, the state police in Michigan are using devices that allow them to slurp all sorts of data off your mobile phone. Various courts over the years have taken up the question of whether or not it's okay for police to search your mobile phone during a traffic stop without a warrant, and the rulings are quite mixed. What is allowed is for police to search through your physical belongings, but "digital" belongings is a bit more of a gray area, and it seems to depend on the court. Most recently, the California Supreme Court said that such searches are fine.

The reason many of us are troubled by this is that, like laptops, the contents on your mobile phone are both a lot more expansive these days than, say, a bag you're carrying -- and can be a lot more private. So it's a bit troubling that at least some courts have said there's really no difference between searching a bag that you're holding and the full contents of your mobile phone at a traffic stop.

The situation in Michigan is potentially more troubling, because the police are apparently using technology that lets them gather all sorts of info off your phone quite quickly -- and can even get around some password protections:
A US Department of Justice test of the CelleBrite UFED used by Michigan police found the device could grab all of the photos and video off of an iPhone within one-and-a-half minutes. The device works with 3000 different phone models and can even defeat password protections.

"Complete extraction of existing, hidden, and deleted phone data, including call history, text messages, contacts, images, and geotags," a CelleBrite brochure explains regarding the device's capabilities. "The Physical Analyzer allows visualization of both existing and deleted locations on Google Earth. In addition, location information from GPS devices and image geotags can be mapped on Google Maps."
It's not at all clear if the police in Michigan are using the full extent of these tools, and that's what the ACLU was curious about. So, it filed a Freedom of Information Act request on the matter... and was told that it would cost $544,680 to get that information. That doesn't sound like "freedom" of information, now does it? While the folks over at Techland suggest a Kickstarter project, I think the ACLU is hoping that it can pressure the police into changing their position on this without having to resort to such measures.

Update: The Michigan State Police got in touch (via Twitter, believe it or not) to claim that the story is not accurate. According to them, they only use these devices with a warrant, "or if the person possessing the mobile device gives consent" (which, admittedly, opens up some questions, since under stressful circumstances, faced with a police officer, people may feel pressured to "give consent."). They don't explain the $545k bit, other than to say they've been working with the ACLU to "reduce" the cost.

Filed Under: freedom of information, michigan, mobile phones, privacy, traffic stops
Companies: aclu


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  1. icon
    Adam Wasserman (profile), 20 Apr 2011 @ 12:52pm

    Re: phone snooping

    It seems (from the CelleBrite website) that it uses a physical connection (as well as Bluetooth).

    You see decisions like that of the Califrnia Supreme Court make it OK for police to insist on a physical connecton for no reason.

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