Smartphones Are Valuable Police Tools; Cops Need Passwords


New software and gizmos are revolutionizing police work, with social media scanners, facial recognition, and other high tech items. The single most valuable new police tool is your smartphone, NPR reports. Rolf Norton, a homicide detective in Seattle, says when he’s talking to a suspect, he keeps his eye open for the person’s smartphone. “I’m thinking there’s probably a wealth of information that just got tucked into your pocket,” Norton says. “Something that we’d like to get our hands on.”

Calls, emails, a calendar, and photos — not to mention GPS data embedded in those photos — could make a whole case in one convenient package. That wealth of information is why more people keep phones locked with a PIN. Norton often must ask the owner for help. “Maybe you’ve established a rapport and you’re getting along with this person,” Norton says. “We’ll reach out to that person and say, ‘Hey, your phone’s locked. We’d like to inspect it. We’ll probably be getting a warrant. Would you give us your password?’ ” Under the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination, you might have the right to refuse. Stanford law Prof. Jeffrey Fisher says courts haven’t settled the issue, so withholding your phone’s password could prove risky. “You can have anything from contempt of court to obstruction of justice,” he says.

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