Since the rise in popularity of biometric security features on mobile devices, whether fingerprint or facial recognition, the legal ramifications have been front and center. While forcing someone to reveal a password or PIN was legally identified as revealing personal and proprietary information, what about looking at a camera? That is not an extraordinary action, similar to walking a line during a traffic stop. Luckily, last year, that issue was laid to rest, with a court decision saying that it required a warrant.
However, there is still some information that can be retrieved without unlocking a device. That information is contained on the lock screen and notification tray. It requires nothing more than the push of a button by anyone nearby to reveal text messages, emails, missed calls or voicemails, and more. The legality of law enforcement being able to retrieve this information without a warrant has been a grey area, but that seems to have come to an end - somewhat.
According to a legal ruling this week, the simple act of turning on the screen of a mobile device is classified as a search and, as such, requires a search warrant. The ruling comes through a District Court in Seattle, who was petitioned to suppress mobile phone data obtained via the lock screen of the device without a search warrant. The judge, John C. Coughenour, ruled that the data was obtained illegally, with the search violating the petitioner's 4th Amendment rights.
This ruling is important, especially for the district over which the court presides. Because of the level of the court, it is far from a standing precedent, but can be used in other courts as past evidence of support. It does not mean that any court, either at the same level or above, is required to follow this ruling. It is the beginning of a very positive legal movement of protection against overreaching law enforcement at a time when the government is trying to expand the capabilities of law enforcement.