As police routinely seek access to people’s cellphones, privacy advocates see a dangerous erosion of Americans’ rights, with courts scrambling to keep up, NBC News reports. “It’s becoming harder to escape the reach of police using technology that didn’t exist before,” said Riana Pfefferkorn of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. “And now we are in the position of trying to walk that back and stem the tide.” While courts have determined that police need a warrant to search a cellphone, the question of whether police can force someone to share a passcode is far from settled, with no laws on the books and a confusing patchwork of judicial decisions. Last month, the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue. State supreme courts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are considering similar cases.
As this legal battle unfolds, police pursue new ways of breaking into cellphones if the owners don’t cooperate or enlist help from technology firms that can do it for them. This has put them at odds with cellphone makers, which continually update their products to make them harder for hackers or anyone else to break into. The hacking techniques are imperfect and expensive, and not all law enforcement agencies have them. That is why officials say compelling suspects to unlock their cellphones is essential to police work. They say that making the tactic more difficult would tilt justice in favor of criminals. “It would have an extreme chilling effect on our ability to thoroughly investigate and bring many, many cases, including violent offenses,” said Hillar Moore, the district attorney in East Baton Rouge, La., who got the FBI’s help in breaking into a cellphone belonging to a suspect in a deadly Louisiana State University fraternity hazing ritual. “It would basically shut the door.”