EFF: Guidelines for Protecting Devices from Illegal Police Search

The Electronic Freedom Foundation has posted guidelines for protecting your computer and mobile phone from illegal police searches. Titled “Know Your Rights!” the guide takes the form of a Q&A that asks 15 questions that device owners could find themselves in, with clear language explanations of their rights and obligations as U.S. citizens.


“With smart phones, tablet computers, and laptops, we carry around with us an unprecedented amount of sensitive personal information,” EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury said in a statement. “That smart phone in your pocket right now could contain email from your doctor or your kid’s teacher, not to mention detailed contact information for all of your friends and family members. Your laptop probably holds even more data — your Internet browsing history, family photo albums, and maybe even things like an electronic copy of your taxes or your employment agreement. This is sensitive data that’s worth protecting from prying eyes.”

A couple of examples:

Q: Can the police enter my home to search my computer or portable device, like a laptop or cell phone?
A: No, in most instances, unless they have a warrant. But there are two major exceptions: (1) you consent to the search;1 or (2) the police have probable cause to believe there is incriminating evidence on the computer that is under immediate threat of destruction.

Q: The police pulled me over while I was driving. Can they search my cell phone?
A: Maybe. If the police believe there is probably evidence of a crime in your car, they may search areas within a driver or passenger’s reach where they believe they might find it - like the glove box, center console, and other “containers.” Some courts have found cell phones to be “containers” that police may search without a warrant.

Many of the questions have no definitive answer, with several maybes and perhaps thrown in amongst the answers. This reflects the reality that there are often exceptions to any law or rule in the U.S. legal system, while there are few black and white scenarios to begin with.

Be that as it may, the PDF does offer a starting point for anyone wanting to better understand their legal rights when it comes to their computers and smartphones, and it makes for very informative writing.