I have written much before today about my concerns with the surveillance state and its corporate avatars. I do my best to avoid it by not having, and never having had, a mobile phone of any kind. In one short phase of my corporate existence I was given a BlackBerry for use on trips to the States, but I never actually learned how to turn it on.
It was not therefore a surprise to me to read that US law enforcement has found ways to electronically monitor all the data on mobile phones, from the most mundane to the most privileged and private.
“The report from Upturn, a Washington, D.C.-based civil society organization, zeroes in on law enforcement use of mobile device forensic tools (MDFTs). These hardware and software tools collect forensic data from mobile phones: the texts, emails, and photos stored on the phone; data regarding when the texts and emails were sent and where the photos were taken; the locations—if location tracking tools are turned on—where the phone and, presumably, the user have been; and when they were there. According to the report, 2,000 of the United States’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, including 50 of the nation’s largest police departments, either have purchased MDFTs or have access to these tools …
These forensic tools are quite sophisticated. FBI Director Christopher Wray once complained that “warrant-proof encryption,” like that used on iPhones, prevents law enforcement access to crucial evidence. But Upturn found that the forensic tools copy all the data found on a cellphone. The tools then sort the data so that law enforcement can easily search through it. And MDFTs include some features that make law enforcement’s job even easier. For example, Cellebrite, perhaps the most sophisticated MDFT, can compare a facial image, such as from a police database, to any of the faces in photos stored on the phone. Others MDFTs classify text conversations by topic, such as drugs, money or family.”
Apple and the other mobile phone providers offer increasingly enhanced privacy protections but “Apple’s and Google’s security protections appear to be good enough to thwart casual criminals. But they don’t appear to keep out anyone with a large enough budget to pay for MDFTs.”
The Upturn Report noted that “phone searches were frequently problematic from a civil liberties perspective. Searches were often conducted for inconsequential crimes; there were minimal legal controls over searches.” Upturn found that “state and local law enforcement agencies have performed hundreds of thousands of cellphone extractions since 2015,” many without a warrant.
There are other issues. The report singles out, for example, the plain view exception, which permits a law enforcement officer to seize objects not described in a warrant when conducting a search if such objects are in plain view. This exception … is unreasonable when searching a digital device. MDFTs have been designed to assume all files are in “plain view,” an extension of the doctrine that renders it meaningless.
If you have any concerns about government and/or corporate use of your private information you should read this enlightening article and then experience life without an electronic tether.