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Can police force you to reveal your phone’s passcode?

Smartphones contain many, if not most, of the important details of our daily lives, from who we talk to, to where we travel and what we buy. That makes an iPhone or Android device an attractive target for police for potential evidence if they suspect you committed a crime.

If the police want to access your phone data, it’s crucial to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help you keep your personal information private. But it’s also important that you understand how police can get that info as well as your rights to keep it from prying eyes.

How does law enforcement access phone data?

There are two primary ways police can get their hands on your personal information stored in a smartphone. They are:

Through third parties: Most or all of our phone data is stored on a server located elsewhere. If you back up your iPhone to the iCloud, police can get a court order and demand that Apple give them the information.

  • How are you protected?: You do have rights. The Fourth Amendment safeguards against illegal search and seizure, and a provision in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 requires law enforcement to obtain a subpoena, warrant or other court order to gain access.

Directly from your phone: Police may confiscate your phone and demand that you give them your passcode or use tools such as GrayKey or Cellebrite to try to crack your code – again, they must get a search warrant to do so.

  • How are you protected?: If your phone is protected by a strong passcode or uses biometric unlocking features, such as fingerprints or facial recognition, police may not be able to gain access. Also, the Fifth Amendment protects you from incriminating yourself, and civil rights experts say that means you can’t be forced to give them your code.

Smartphone privacy laws are not clear-cut

While there are many recent cases concerning privacy concerns and smartphones, most of the rulings pre-date the technology and are decades or even centuries old. Most of these decisions are related to accessing paper documents, compared to the gigabytes of data that our phones contain. That’s why it’s essential to your defense to talk to a lawyer who understands these complicated laws.