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. identicon
    John Doe, 21 Apr 2011 @ 4:19pm

    April 20, 2011 - Official Statement (from police): Use of Cell Phone Data Extraction Devices

    LANSING. Recent news coverage prompted by a press release issued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has brought speculation and caused inaccurate information to be reported about data extraction devices (DEDs) owned by the Michigan State Police (MSP).
    To be clear, there have not been any allegations of wrongdoing by the MSP in the use of DEDs.

    The MSP only uses the DEDs if a search warrant is obtained or if the person possessing the mobile device gives consent. The department*s internal directive is that the DEDs only be used by MSP specialty teams on criminal cases, such as crimes against children.

    The DEDs are not being used to extract citizens' personal information during routine traffic stops.

    The MSP does not possess DEDs that can extract data without the officer actually possessing the owner's mobile device. The DEDs utilized by the MSP cannot obtain information from mobile devices without the mobile device owner knowing.

    Data extraction devices are commercially available and are routinely utilized by mobile communication device vendors nationwide to transmit data from one device to another when customers upgrade their mobile devices.

    These DEDs have been adapted for law enforcement use due to the ever-increasing use of mobile communication devices by criminals to further their criminal activity and have become a powerful investigative tool used to obtain critical information from criminals.

    Since 2008, the MSP has worked with the ACLU to narrow the focus, and thus reducing the cost, of its initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. To date, the MSP has fulfilled at least one ACLU FOIA request on this issue and has several far-lower cost requests awaiting payment to begin processing. The MSP provides information in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act. As with any request, there may be a processing fee to search for, retrieve, review, examine, and separate exempt material, if any.

    The implication by the ACLU that the MSP uses these devices "quietly to bypass Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches" is untrue, and this divisive tactic unjustly harms police and community relations.

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