Your mobile phone or your tablet is one of your most important social tools. You stay connected to your family, your employer and your broader network of friends through devices. You also research important matters and entertain yourself using those devices.
The records of what you have searched for, watched or even commented online could have an impact on any criminal charges that the state brings against you. It is easy for people who don’t know you to take certain things out of context.
Reducing how many people see your private digital history is likely beneficial even if the state hasn’t yet charged you with a crime. When can the police potentially look through your digital devices or online behavior?
When they arrest you
In theory, police officers could look at your device after they take it from you during an arrest. Given that most people carry their phones on their person, your phone will most likely end up in police officers’ hands if they arrest you.
Thankfully, officers cannot search through your device, especially if you have protected it with a biometric lock or a passcode, unless the situation meets certain criteria.
When you give permission
You may not think that anything you’ve done online is problematic, largely because you haven’t stopped to consider how certain normal habits might look to someone in court. The easiest way for police officers to bypass restrictions on their behaviors or limits on their right to search is to get permission from the person involved.
If a police officer asks to look through your phone, they likely want to find evidence against you. A single incriminating thing might give them permission to keep looking even if you want to take your phone back.
When they have a warrant
If a police officer has good reason to suspect that your device played a role in the commission of a crime or that it contains evidence about a crime, such as data that could place you near a crime scene, they may be able to convince a judge to issue a warrant for your electronic devices.
In some cases, they could also request phone records directly from the companies that provide cellphone service or those that run major social media platforms or popular apps. Police departments may also have apps or devices that allow them to get into phones with passcodes or other locks installed.
Understanding your rights when it comes to privacy and digital technology can help you better protect yourself when facing criminal charges.