All the electronic devices we own, especially our mobile phones and computers, have a huge amount of personal information about us and our family. Such data could be contact details, phone numbers and email accounts of friends and family, emails from the doctor, family photographs, Internet browsing history, employment agreement and many many more. We should protect that sensitive data from prying eyes. In those prying eyes we include the governments and we should protect ourselves from illegal police searches. We will analyze what is legal and what is not and what we should do if police wants to search our digital devices. In most countries, you should consult with an attorney before saying anything to law enforcement officials because anything said can be used against you. Also, we don’t know the laws for all the countries in the world and you should consult with an attorney for what of the following applies to your country. After saying that, here are the scenarios and what we can do in those cases.
- Police come to your house and ask to come in and search your electronic devices. In this case you can say “No” and tell them to come back with a warrant. If you say no and there is no probable cause, they can not enter and search. If you say yes they can enter your house and search your electronic devices without warrant.
- Police arrive – or return because you said no – and this time with warrant. If they say that they have a warrant then you have the right to ask them to show it to you. If the warrant is only to enter the house, then they can not search your electronic devices. You should read the warrant and only let them to search the areas authorized by the warrant. Be careful, if police see the screen of your computer/device and it shows anything suspicious or incriminating, then they can take it for further examination. Again, if you consent on searching your electronic devices then they don’t need a warrant and can search it and if they find anything, they can use it against you.
- Law enforcement officials have a warrant to search your digital devices. This scenario includes the above case, they have come with a warrant, you have read it and it authorizes them to search your electronic devices. In this scenario, you let them search your devices silently. If you interfere, obstruct the investigation or try to destroy evidence, you can be arrested. If the law enforcement officials ask questions while searching, you don’t have to answer and the best way is to stay silent. If you decide to answer any questions, you should say the truth, because lying to a police officer is a crime.
- Police officers are searching your electronic devices but are password protected or have encrypted data. In this scenario law enforcement officials are searching your electronic devices, authorized by the warrant, but they find that the devices are password protected and/or you have encrypted data. If the police officers ask you to tell them your passwords or the encryption keys, you can say “No” and they can not force you to do so. However, they can seize your electronic devices and then have a judge or a grand jury force you to turn over your passwords and/or encryption keys. If this is the case you should inform your lawyer and he/she will tell you what is the right thing to do.
The most common scenarios are the ones mentioned above. There are more scenarios, such as when police search your electronic devices on the airport or border, when police pull you over when driving or even when you get arrested. In this post only the most common scenarios were analyzed, the other scenarios will be analyzed in a future post if there is a need to do so. I wish some of you find this post informative and if anyone face a scenario like the ones mentioned above, I wish you find this post helpful. You should know your digital rights and protect your data.