Do We Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Our Mobile Data?

Smartphones and mobile devices are becoming increasingly popular. Many people keep their emails, documents, and other private information on their Blackberries, iPhones, and iPads. Police officers are aware of this and want to pry.

Two disturbing developments call to the front stage the question of privacy. The first is the California Supreme Court’s ruling in
People v Diaz, California Supreme Court No. S166600 which declined to find any enhanced privacy interest in these devices. In Diaz, the Court ruled that the police could seize and search through these devices as part of an ordinary arrest. Presumably, this includes an ordinary traffic arrest.

Several years ago, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled the same thing with respect to laptop computers.
People v Dagwan, 269 Mich App 338, 711 NW2d 386 (2006). There, the Court said that searching a laptop was ordinarily within the scope of a consent search. E.g. when an officer asks if he should look around the car, you are consenting to him booting up and looking at your emails.

As bad as this ruling is, a company specializing in password breaking software (Data Access) has decided to capitalize on this ruling by releasing a hand held password breaking tool that field officers can use to break into people’s
secured smartphones. Their press release overtly capitalizes on the Diaz ruling. This raises a disturbing problem for individuals who carry confidential data for a living. Is it ethical to carry privileged communication on your Blackberry or iPhone?

The California Bar Association just released an
ethics opinion suggesting that we (meaning lawyers) may need to leave these devices at home in order to protect client privacy. While this was not what they intended, they said that lawyers have to take steps to protect client privacy and be aware of the technology which makes our client’s data vulnerable. Now that we know that police can use a pretextual speeding ticket to pry into our client’s data, this may be the net result. Many years ago in Whren v United States, 517 US 806 (1996), the United States Supreme Court upheld the use of pretext based traffic stops. The combination of these rulings could be scary.

For a nice analysis about why courts are getting it wrong when they fail to recognize the unique privacy interests in electronic devices, see M.
Leach, Flyers Beware: The NInth Circuit Decision in United States v Arnold, Granted Customs Agents Access Into Your Laptops, 26 Cooley L Rev 307 (2009)
(requires fee to access article).