Search Warrant Sometimes Required For Lock Screen Access, Judge Rules

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A search warrant is required for law enforcement to access the lock screen of an individual's smartphone. Or at least it is in some cases, based on a recently reported ruling from District Judge John Coughenour of the US District Court in Seattle.

The ruling was issued in Washington state in connection with a criminal case involving two separate enforcement agencies, the police and the FBI, and suspect Joseph Sam. According to reports, the lock screen on Mr. Sam's smartphone was accessed twice — once by each agency. First, the police accessed the lock screen during the arrest. The FBI accessed and took a picture of the information on that lock screen two months later.

According to Judge Coughenour, the action taken by the FBI violated Mr. Sam's Fourth Amendment rights since it was done without a warrant. The US District Judge is reportedly awaiting clarification on the ruling, but evidence gathered from the interaction has now been suppressed. That decision follows a motion filed by Mr. Sam's representation, indicating that the evidence was obtained without a warrant and should be excluded from proceedings.

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The evidence in question was the appearance of a contact — presumably seen in a notification — saved to the device as "Steezy."

According to this ruling, when is a lock screen search warrant required?

Now, it's not immediately clear which part of the FBI's actions were in violation of the suspect in this case's rights. The police were, as noted above, able to access the lock screen without any trouble. But the judge notes that the FBI "physically intruded" on the suspect's 'personal effect'. And that it did so by powering on the phone and then taking a picture.

So the issue at hand could be the act of taking a picture. Or it could be that the FBI needed to power on the device first. Conversely, the issue may be that the second access occurred outside of the context of an ongoing arrest.

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The ruling will likely be clarified as Judge Coughenour receives clarification on the matter.

Clarification won't necessarily solve anything

Mobile user rights have been a point of contention in courts and among users for years. As a result, the laws and requirements surrounding smartphone and technology searches are not cleanly defined. For instance, it's not against the rules for enforcement officers to force a device to be unlocked with biometrics. But it is if they ask for a PIN to unlock the device.

Similarly, under certain circumstances, such as at the country's borders, it isn't against any rules for agents to seize and search devices. Sometimes for months before returning devices. That's happened with increasing regularity, at the very least since 2017, and at least some of the people being searched aren't under investigation for criminal activity when that happens.

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So it's unlikely that any ruling or clarification will go unnoticed — or unchallenged — either by those in opposition to or in support of such searches.

For those who are concerned about the practice, Android does offer a simple solution. Within Android's Notifications settings, typically housed under "Lock screen" it is possible to hide lock screen notifications. Users can choose to either hide only sensitive notifications or to hide them all.