Criminal Defense

Can Police Access Your Phone Remotely?

August 30, 2022 by Mikel Rastegar in Criminal Defense  Special Report  
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GPS, Cellular or WIFi Triangulation

Looking for Evidence

If the police try to access your phone, it’s likely because they’re gathering evidence against you. Passcode-cracking and vulnerability-exploiting businesses are becoming more adept at weakening mobile devices.

Law enforcement is increasingly resorting to bypassing security measures built into phones to obtain access to suspects’ devices, even in cases involving relatively minor offenses. A few decent primers online explain what you can do to reduce the likelihood that law enforcement will be able to monitor your phone, but these measures are not foolproof.

Local Data vs. Cloud Data

There are many backups of data on your phone. Anything saved outside of your device can be accessed by law enforcement if they follow the correct and established legal routes to do so. If you back up an iPhone to Apple’s iCloud, the government can request that information from Apple. Law enforcement can ask Twitter to access your direct messages if they have a legitimate reason to see persons you have been messaging.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act

An individual’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is guaranteed by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which specifies the kinds of warrants that law enforcement agencies must have to access certain types of electronic communications like a subpoena, court order, or warrant. The Stored Communications Act (a subsection of the ECPA) requires service providers to obtain such warrants before disclosing customer information to law enforcement.

However, your data is easy to access if the government has the proper documentation and can be done through social media:

  • Data Sharing
  • Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram

The data-sharing rules are similar as Facebook controls Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram. Facebook can access and share your information in certain situations. Because Facebook is an American firm, authorities must submit a Mutual Legal Assistance request to obtain any data. This procedure might take two to six years. On 3 October 2019, the US signed the Bilateral Data Sharing Agreement, allowing authorities to apply directly to Facebook and speeding up the procedure.

Facebook will provide your data without a Mutual Legal Assistance request if there is a danger of significant damage, death, or immediate harm to a child. Facebook will likely provide cops with private data if asked.

Since Facebook owns WhatsApp, it will follow the same regulations. WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, so the cops can’t read your messages.

The information given to the police includes:

  • Identify
  • Your cellphone
  • IPs
  • Locations
  • Relationships
  • App-accessed website data
  • Conversation length

Facebook Messenger is not encrypted by default. Police can only see your communications if they use your phone to launch the app. The cops can access communication material unless you enable “private talks.”

Snapchat has rules to give data to law police if needed. Again, because Snap Inc. is an American firm, police must use the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. The exception is emergency requests if the firm feels there is a risk of immediate death or serious physical damage, justifying data release.

Even if Snap Inc releases certain data, authorities may only be able to access “Snaps” or “Chat” material in restricted instances. Once all recipients open a Snap, it’s removed permanently. If at least one recipient does not open the Snap, it’s destroyed after thirty days from Snap Inc’s servers and twenty hours from the user’s “Story.” Police can only obtain Chat material if you or the receiver saves it.

Related Article: Can Police Track Who You Call on Your Phone?

Real-Time Triangulation

Triangulation is done by ‘pinging’ the signal from two or more cell towers to pinpoint your location based on the ping time from each tower. The distance from a single cell tower can be roughly determined by the time it takes for a phone to respond to a ping.

The location of each cell tower combined with their ping times allows the phone’s location to be pinpointed, and the more towers involved, the more precise the pinpoint.

Even more accurate in the modern era is GPS triangulation, which has 90% accuracy compared to cellular’s 80% accuracy.

Law enforcement can use these methods if there is a serious felon on the run that they are trying to catch before he gets away.

Surveillance companies

Consumer tech firms supply police services. Law enforcement organizations work with surveillance tech businesses like Clearview AI and Voyager to harvest internet and social media data. Amazon’s smart doorbell Ring offers cops access to its Neighbor’s social network and makes it easier to monitor and request Ring footage from users.

As the IT industry seeks new development opportunities, contracts with law enforcement have increased, analysts say. Law enforcement contracts have become an attractive development strategy due to the unlimited supply of funds for operations like the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) and local police.

Data Brokers

Companies acquire and sell your data for profit. The underground network of data brokers operates under the radar but gives other agencies, including law enforcement, easy access to customer data, including location and purchase history. These brokers, including telecommunications firms and credit reporting organizations, sell raw data or inferences and analyses to other companies and government agencies. Some data brokers link with applications to gather location and purchase history.

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How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
  2. Do not discuss your case with anyone
  3. Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential
  4. Tell police you need to contact your attorney
  5. Never consent to any search by the police
  6. If the police knock on your door, don't answer!
  7. Realize the consequences of a criminal conviction
  8. Your lawyer (not you) will contact any witnesses
  9. Information on your cell phone is evidence
  10. Early Intervention is the key

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