When the police want to view information stored on an iPhone or Android device, or the Cloud, what they can access largely depends on a series of laws and court decisions in place long before the technology existed.

What police can get is often determined by the protections you have to keep your phone data from prying eyes, where you live and the law enforcement agency that wants it. There are ways to minimize access, but you likely can’t guarantee privacy.

How do police access data?

There are two primary sources from which police can get your phone data:

From a third party: If you back up your iPhone to Apple’s iCloud, the government can likely get it from the company.

  • What can they get?: With the right court order, usually whatever they want.
  • What protections exist?: You do have rights. The Fourth Amendment protects you from illegal search and seizure. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 mandates that authorities obtain the proper court order to get this information.

From your phone: In some cases, police want data that is only stored on a smartphone, such as encrypted messages from services like WhatsApp, which are not stored elsewhere.

  • What can they get?: With a search warrant, police can get your data if your phone doesn’t have a password or they can use a password-cracking tool, such as Cellebrite or GrayKey.
  • What protections exist?: While there are no guarantees, the police may not be able to access information if your phone is protected by a password or uses biometric unlocking features, such as a fingerprint.

Different courts, different rulings

Our phones contain just about every detail of our lives, including who we talk to, where we’ve been, what we spend our money on and our future plans. Decisions over accessing that data aren’t always cut-and-dried.

Many judgments are based on rulings decades old, pertaining to paper documents. While keeping your phone data private may be challenging, it’s in your best interest to talk to an experienced Wisconsin criminal defense attorney before handing over your password.