Michigan police downloading drivers’ phone data without warrants?

For a few years now, the Michigan State Police has been using portable devices that allow them to secretly extract personal information from cell phones of drivers who have been pulled over.

That in itself wouldn’t be such a shocking revelation if the devices have been used only on cell phones of people suspected of a crime, but according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the police has used the devices to access data of people who were simply pulled over for minor infractions.

The devices, most of which are manufactured by CelleBrite, can extract a great number of data from most cell phones, including contacts, text messages, deleted text messages, call history, pictures, audio and video recordings, memory file dumps and more.

Concerned about the possible constitutional implications of using these devices to conduct suspicionless searches without consent or a search warrant, the ACLU of Michigan has for nearly three years now been filing Freedom of Information Act requests to the Michigan State Police to reveal the data it collected, but it had no luck so far.

The MSP claims that the cost of retrieving the data in question from the five devices in their possession and compiling documents will reach $544,680, and asked the ACLU to fork over a $272,340 deposit in order to start receiving documents.

“In order to reduce the cost, the ACLU of Michigan narrowed the scope of its request,” says the ACLU press release regarding the matter. “However, each time the ACLU submitted more narrow requests, MSP claimed that no documents exist for that time period and then it refused to reveal when the devices were used so a proper request could be made.”

The ACLU sent a letter to the MSP, in which it explains their intent and asks again the MSP to comply to their requests, saying that a warrantless search of cell phones may constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

If this request fails, and the matter ends up in court, its final decision about the matter might set a precedent about privacy expectations regarding cell phones.

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