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Michigan police refute claims of data-collection wrongdoing

The Michigan State Police fires back at accusations that it is using data-extraction devices to secretly collect data from people's cell phones during routine traffic stops.

One of the data extraction devices made by Cellebrite and used by the Michigan State Police. Cellebrite

The Michigan State Police today fired back at claims that it has been using handheld machines called "extraction devices" to download personal information from motorists they pull over during routine traffic stops.

The Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union last week said it was petitioning the MSP to release information regarding the use of portable devices that "can be used to secretly extract personal information from cell phones during routine stops." The devices can reportedly download text messages, photos, video, and GPS data from most brands of cell phones. In its statement, the ACLU said it has been attempting to get more information about these devices for three years.

Now, the police department says claims about how it uses the so-called data extraction devices, or DEDs, are off-base.

"The MSP only uses the DEDs if a search warrant is obtained or if the person possessing the mobile device gives consent," it said in a statement. "The DEDs are not being used to extract citizens' personal information during routine traffic stops."

As for secret collection of data, the police said, "The MSP does not possess DEDs that can extract data without the officer actually possessing the owner's mobile device. The DEDs utilized by the MSP cannot obtain information from mobile devices without the mobile-device owner knowing."

There has been some misunderstanding surrounding this story. To be clear, the ACLU of Michigan said it is not accusing the police of any inappropriate use of the devices. Its primary concerns are twofold.

First, it is concerned that "if motorists hand over their cell phones, they may not know that Michigan State Police have a device that can extract a vast amount of data," according to Mark P. Fancher, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney.

Second is the fact that the MSP is only willing to disclose details about past use of the devices at great expense. "We don't believe we should go on an expensive fishing expedition to find out whether MSP is following the law," said Fancher. "In fact, we are encouraged that they issued a statement saying that they now have policies and practices in place, but it's important to know what they did in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. The statement does not satisfy our request for documents regarding how these devices were used in practice in the past."

Update on April 21 at 6:27 p.m. PT: This story has been updated with comment from the ACLU of Michigan and to clarify that the ACLU itself has not accused the Michigan police of wrongdoing, contrary to several online reports.