ACLU wants to know how Michigan cops use 'data extraction devices'

ACLU wants more information on how Michigan State Police are using handheld devices it says could download information from the cell phones of motorists they pull over.

This machine could let police see all of your photos. Even that one. Matt Hickey/Cellebrite

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout based on comment from both the Michigan State Police and the ACLU of Michigan. See below for details.

The Michigan State Police have a handful of portable machines called "extraction devices" that have the potential to download personal information from motorists they pull over, and the ACLU would like to know more about them.

The devices, sold by a company called Cellebrite, can download text messages, photos, video, and even GPS data from most brands of cell phones. The handheld machines have various interfaces to work with different models and can even bypass security passwords and access some information.

The problem, as the ACLU sees it, is that accessing a citizen's private phone information when there's no probable cause could create a violation of the Constitution's 4th Amendment, which protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures.

To that end, it's petitioning the MSP to turn over information about its use of the devices under the Freedom of Information Act. The MSP said it's happy to comply, that is, if the ACLU provides them with a processing fee in excess of $500,000. That's more than $100,000 for each of the five devices the MSP says it has in use.

The ACLU, for its part, says that the fee is odious, and that a public policing agency has a duty to its citizens to be open. "This should be something that they are handing over freely, and that they should be more than happy to share with the public--the routines and the guidelines that they follow," Mark Fancher, an attorney for the ACLU, told Detroit's WDIV.

As of yet there's no suit, but one is likely if the MSP sticks to its proverbial guns and refuses to hand over information about how it's using the cell phone snooping devices, without being first paid. If litigation does come, the outcome may set a precedent that would have far-reaching effects, and might make a device that most of us carry a pocket battleground in the war of digital privacy .

Update on April 20 at 11:50 p.m.: The Michigan State Police later issued a statement saying that it only uses the data-extraction devices after obtaining a search warrant or consent from a cell phone's owner. See our story here for more details.

Correction on April 21 at 5:45 p.m.: This story initially mischaracterized the nature of the ACLU of Michigan's complaint. The ACLU is not making any accusations of misuse on the part of the Michigan State Police. It is simply asking for more information on the MSP's policies and history of using the devices.

About the author

    With more than 15 years experience testing hardware (and being obsessed with it), Crave freelance writer Matt Hickey can tell the good gadgets from the great. He also has a keen eye for future technology trends. Matt has blogged for publications including TechCrunch, CrunchGear, and most recently, Gizmodo. Matt is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CBS Interactive. E-mail Matt.

     

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