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.

Filed Under: california, chips, mobile encryption, naked photos, police

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2014 @ 2:16pm

    Re: Fine wine vs. Sewage

    That is why I used a barrel in the analogy and not a fermenter tank. You really don't want to know what falls into fermenter tanks and drown.

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