Hunter Moss, MJLST Staffer
Mobile phones are an inescapable part of modern life. Research shows that 95% of Americans carry some sort of cell phone, while 77% own smartphones. These devices contain all sorts of personal information, including: call logs, emails, pictures, text messages, and access to social networks. It is unsurprising that the rise of mobile phone use has coincided with an increased interest from law enforcement. Gaining access to a phone could provide a monumental breakthrough in a criminal investigation.
Just as law enforcement is eager to rummage through a suspect’s phone, many individuals hope to keep personal data secret from prying eyes. Smartphone developers use a process called encryption to ensure their consumers’ data is kept private. In short, encryption is a process of encoding data and making it inaccessible without an encryption key. Manufacturers have come under increasing pressure to release encryption keys to law enforcement conducting criminal investigations. Most notable was the confrontation between the F.B.I. and Apple in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting. A magistrate judge ordered Apply to decrypt the shooter’s phone. The tech giant refused, stating that granting the government such a power would undermine the security, and the privacy, of all cellphone users.
The legal theory of a right to privacy has served as the foundation of defenses against government requests for cellphone data. These defenses have been couched in the Fourth Amendment, which is the Constitutional protection guaranteeing security against unreasonable searches. In a ruling that will have profound implications for the future of law enforcement, the Fourth Amendment protection was first extended to mobile phone data when the Supreme Court decided Carpenter v. United States in early 2018. The holding in Carpenter necessitates that warrants are granted during any government investigation seeking to obtain mobile phone records from service providers.
A case from Florida was the most recent iteration of a novel legal theory to shield smartphone users from government encroachment. While the Carpenter decision relied on the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy, last week’s ruling by the Florida Court of Appeals invokes the Fifth Amendment to bar law enforcement agents from compelling suspects to enter their passcodes and unlocking their phones. This evolution of the Fifth Amendment was grounds for the court to quash a juvenile court’s order for the defendant to reveal his password, which would relinquish the privacy of his phone.
The Fifth Amendment is the constitutional protection from self-incrimination. A suspect in a criminal case cannot be compelled to communicate inculpatory evidence. Because a phone’s passcode is something that we, as the owners, “know,” being forced to divulge the information would be akin to being forced to testify against oneself. While mobile phone users might feel relieved that the development of Fifth Amendment is expanding privacy protections, smartphone owners shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate. While the Fifth Amendment might protect what you “know,” it does not protect what you “are.” Several courts have recognized that the police may unlock a phone using a suspect’s fingerprint or facial recognition software. Given that fingerprinting and mug shots are already routine procedures during an arrest, courts have been reluctant to view unlocking a phone in either manner as an additional burden on suspects.
Technology has seen some incredible advancements over the last few years, particularly in the field of mobile devices. Some have even theorized that our phones are becoming extensions of our minds. The legal framework providing constitutional protections supporting the right to privacy and the right against self-incrimination have trailed the pace of these developments. The new string of cases extending the Fifth Amendment to cellphone searches is an important step in the right direction. As phones have become a ubiquitous part of modern life, containing many of our most private and intimate information, it is clear that the law must continue to evolve to ensure that they are safeguarded from unwanted and unlimited government intrusion.