Can Police Officers Legally Force People to Provide Their Passwords or Unlock Their Devices?

Law Enforcement Legally Unlocking Devices

In January, The Tampa Bay Times wrote about Taphonie Prince, a Florida-born suspected armed robber who was given a prison sentence not because law enforcement managed to prove that he had stolen something, but because he refused to unlock his Android smartphone and allow investigators to have a look at what's inside it.

On its own, this is already a pretty strange situation, but it becomes weirder still when you consider the fact that had Prince been arrested in another part of The Sunshine State, he would have received a completely different treatment. As Tampa Bay Times' coverage points out, although they are all part of the same state, different courts have different opinions when it comes to whether or not law enforcement officers are allowed to force suspects to give away the passwords for their computers and mobile devices.

More recently, Robert Diab, an Associate Professor at Thompson River University's Faculty of Law, also discussed the question, and he showed a few more cases in which it has popped up. He analyzed the problem and explained how the experts see it. This type of conflict can affect every single one of us, though, so we too must do what we can to understand it.

Why do we lock our devices in the first place?

Setting a password and/or calibrating the biometric authentication mechanisms is usually one of the first steps during the process of setting up a new device. There's a very good reason for this.

Our computers, smartphones, and tablets contain treasure troves of information nowadays, and most of it is very dear to us. It's so intimate that we're not prepared to share it even with our closest ones. Naturally enough, when a police officer you've never met before tells you that they need to rummage through all your personal files, you will most likely be a bit apprehensive about it. Rightly so, one may add.

Everybody is entitled to their privacy, and in the 21st century, our devices are a major part of it. For many people, letting someone, regardless of who or what they represent, poke through your private data is completely unacceptable.

Of course, it's not as simple as that.

Electronic data can be crucial in solving crimes

Electronic devices can do a lot more than just store data. They can serve as tools for committing crimes in the virtual world, and sometimes, they can hold evidence of an offense committed in the real one. They, and, more specifically, the data they store, can be instrumental in solving a crime, and if law enforcement officers are not allowed to open them under any circumstances, this could very well lead to justice not being served. In fact, if the privacy concerns lead to laws and regulations, criminals could exploit them to stop investigators from finding crucial evidence and prosecuting them.

An obvious but elusive solution

Few will argue that what we need is a fine balance that won't let investigators invade suspects' privacy and will nevertheless give them the freedom they need to do their job. Unfortunately, we're nowhere near close to finding the said balance. Laws in different countries, states, and even cities vary wildly, and often, only a legal expert can tell you whether or not you are allowed to say "No" when a police officer asks you to unlock your phone. It's a heated debate that is unlikely to end any time soon, which is why your best strategy is to try and avoid getting in a situation where law enforcement agents will be interested in rummaging through the data on your personal device.

May 29, 2019

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