Are You Okay With a Cop Scanning Your Phone During a Traffic Stop?

20th century debate:  Do cops have the right to search your car, or your body, when they pull you over?

21st century debate:  Do cops have the right to scan your iPhone or Android when they pull you over?

The latter is the very high-tech debate now underway in Michigan, but could it soon come to a state near you?

Law enforcement officers in Michigan are under fire for allegedly using mobile forensics devices to grab data from the mobile phones of drivers pulled over for even minor traffic violations.

The CelleBrite UFED is the data extraction device (DED) used by Michigan officers that can bypass the password restrictions of more than 3,000 types of mobile phones to pull comprehensive phone data, from call history, text messages and contacts to images, and geotags, in a matter of minutes.

The alleged widespread use of the high-tech gadget by Michigan police is now at the center of a controversy that has pit the state chapter of nation’s largest civil liberties group, the ACLU, against the state’s police.

The devices have been used by Michigan cops since 2006 but are now in the spotlight after the Michigan chapter of the ACLU published a letter it sent to the state police, asking for an explanation of how the devices are used and warning that misuse of the device could be a Fourth Amendment violation.

Michigan State Police responded with a statement of their own Wednesday, claiming “it only uses the DEDs if a search warrant is obtained or if the person possessing the mobile device gives consent.”

“The DEDs are not being used to extract citizens’ personal information during routine traffic stops,” the statement read.

The debate in Michigan has gained steam, and spread nationwide, on top of the revelation by British researchers this week that Apple iPhone and iPad users were also unknowingly having their locations and data tracked and stored through hidden features in the devices’ software.

Cellebrite, the Israel-based maker of the device under scrutiny in Michigan, says on its Web site its devices are used by military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, and are capable of retrieving even deleted and hidden data on phones in addition to data such as contacts lists, texts messages and photos.

With these two new dimensions added to the ongoing privacy debate, Americans can’t help but wonder, just who is tracking me?  And does tracking help keep me safe, as the Michigan police would claim, or is it a violation of my privacy, as the ACLU would argue?

The ACLU in Michigan filed the case’s first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2008 on a “tip” that Michigan police had used a DED unlawfully.

As reported by ABC News, however, the ACLU has so far to declined to offer any specific details on the alleged misuse, beyond noting they have, “credible information that they were being used during routine stops without a warrant.”  When the police did not respond, citing the high costs of such a request, the ACLU continued its plight.

A Michigan State Police spokeswoman told ABC the devices have never been used to take personal cellphone information from citizens during routine stops but, instead, “have been used by specialty teams in high-level cases that require digital forensics methods — for example, a child pornography case in which officers would need data from a suspect’s computer and cellphone.”

Tell us what you think.  Are you okay with law enforcement officers using such “data extraction devices”?  Which worries you more, or not at all, the case in Michigan or the Apple-related discovery by British researchers?

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