By on April 19, 2011

The Michigan State Police have a high-tech mobile forensics device that can be used to extract information from cell phones belonging to motorists stopped for minor traffic violations. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan last Wednesday demanded that state officials stop stonewalling freedom of information requests for information on the program.

ACLU learned that the police had acquired the cell phone scanning devices and in August 2008 filed an official request for records on the program, including logs of how the devices were used. The state police responded by saying they would provide the information only in return for a payment of $544,680. The ACLU found the charge outrageous.

“Law enforcement officers are known, on occasion, to encourage citizens to cooperate if they have nothing to hide,” ACLU staff attorney Mark P. Fancher wrote. “No less should be expected of law enforcement, and the Michigan State Police should be willing to assuage concerns that these powerful extraction devices are being used illegally by honoring our requests for cooperation and disclosure.”

A US Department of Justice test of the CelleBrite UFED used by Michigan police found the device could grab all of the photos and video off of an iPhone within one-and-a-half minutes. The device works with 3000 different phone models and can even defeat password protections.

“Complete extraction of existing, hidden, and deleted phone data, including call history, text messages, contacts, images, and geotags,” a CelleBrite brochure explains regarding the device’s capabilities. “The Physical Analyzer allows visualization of both existing and deleted locations on Google Earth. In addition, location information from GPS devices and image geotags can be mapped on Google Maps.”

The ACLU is concerned that these powerful capabilities are being quietly used to bypass Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

“With certain exceptions that do not apply here, a search cannot occur without a warrant in which a judicial officer determines that there is probable cause to believe that the search will yield evidence of criminal activity,” Fancher wrote. “A device that allows immediate, surreptitious intrusion into private data creates enormous risks that troopers will ignore these requirements to the detriment of the constitutional rights of persons whose cell phones are searched.”

The national ACLU is currently suing the Department of Homeland Security for its policy of warrantless electronic searches of laptops and cell phones belonging to people entering the country who are not suspected of committing any crime.


Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

44 Comments on “Michigan: Police Search Cell Phones During Traffic Stops...”

  • avatar

    What the hell has happened to America; once the land of the free.

    Are we so apathetic and cowardly that we’ll trade all our rights in for a false sense of security and order?

    • 0 avatar

      Yup.  This is what you get when anti-corporate leftists are derided as communists (and the few that remain put a bag over their head and vote Democrat), and anti-corporate right-wingers are co-opted by rich people astroturfing for tax breaks.
      America, weirdly enough, has no anarchist political tradition.  That’s why this kind of thing happens.

      • 0 avatar

        one party bro

      • 0 avatar

        I donl;t think think this is a partisan issue. The left and right continue to erode our privacy and freedoms in the name of sefety and security. I mean, Gitmo’s still open, ya know? And now unwarranted cell phone tapping technology has hit a new Zenith. All under a leftist, as he continues to erode freedoms in the GW tradition.

      • 0 avatar

        Man, if only leftists were anarchists!
        As a start, what about simply supporting the end to all taxation, all laws and regulations, all borrowing and all money printing by government at any level. That would pretty quickly solve the issue of overly intrusive cops, alongside overly intrusive any government leech. Just starve the tax feeders out, once and for all, until there none left to harass people. That ought to be something the “anarchist” left and the anti tax right could agree on.
        Sadly though, the most intellectually coherent anarchist thinkers, like Rothbard, has since world war 2 been decidedly non leftist, while self proclaimed anarchists on the left has largely contented themselves with cheering on as an ever larger gommiment protects them from repercussions, when they smash other people’s windows and spray paint other people’s walls.

      • 0 avatar
        M 1

        What is weird about America not having an “anarchist political tradition?” Western civilization really only went through two important political phases: feudal-state to mercantile-state. It’s the reason I laugh when people insist the country was founded on “Christian principles” or some such nonsense. Even the beloved Puritans came on a boat under service contracts to work in a strictly commercial operation. The first governments in the US were company-appointed governors.
        I’m not sure what is supposed to be so praiseworthy about being anti-corporate, or what either position has to do with cops searching people’s cell phones.
        This is what happens when your average man-on-the-street has been raised to believe that things were always this way. If you want to point fingers, think about starting with government schools.

      • 0 avatar

        “America, weirdly enough, has no anarchist political tradition.”

        We did have one; see Sacco and Vanzetti, Haymarket affair, Leon Czolgosz, Emma Goldman. etc. It became largely irrelevant after the progressive movement and the New Deal sufficiently improved political access and living conditions for the masses, enough so that anarchy didn’t look very attractive anymore. However, current efforts to undo such social advances may make anarchy seem like a good idea again.

    • 0 avatar

      This isn’t left vs right. It’s individual rights vs the on-going totalitarian predilections of members of the government nomenclatura and their employees. The US Constitution was set up to protect citizens from the depredations of government, but those protections have been greatly eroded over the past century.
      It could be that the impending bankruptcies of governments large and small is what will allow a roll back in the intrusiveness of nanny state minders on both the left and right. Or, they could always just triage out worthwhile services and charge extra fees for them while maintaining useless nanny oversight of activities that should remain private.

    • 0 avatar

      Try this program.  It’s an SMS program for Android that hides SMS messages.   It writes it’s messages out in a format that cannot be read by that device the Police are using.

    • 0 avatar
      James Smith

      It isn’t as if any rational person still believes the USA is a free country. Think about it. No-warrant wire taps, indefinite detention of citizens without charges, approval of rendition of prisoners and torture, stop and frisk without probable cause, search and seizure without a warrant, no-knock entry, confiscation and destruction of cameras that might have been used to film police acting illegally, police brutality, police shootings that go without investigation, managed news, and the civil-rights destroying “Patriot” Act.

      Acts of police behaving illegally, with shootings, Tasers, and unwarranted violence now appear almost daily. Rarely are these offenses punished. Most often “an investigation” is claimed, but soon forgotten.


In addition, the USA, with 5% of the world population, has 25% of all of the prisoners in the world. That means the USA has the most people in prison of any nation in history. Even by percentage of residents incarcerated, not just sheer numbers. USA is # 1!

 Does any of that sound like a free country?

      As Dwight D. Eisenhower said about communism, “It’s like slicing sausage. First they out off a small slice. That isn’t worth fighting over. Then they take another small slice that isn’t worth fighting over. Then another and another. Finally, all you have left is the string and that isn’t worth fighting over, either.

  • avatar

    Very concerning.  How far off is a device will be able to pull GPS data, including speed traveled, locations, etc.  hmm

  • avatar

    But P, I agree about the lack of anarchist instincts in America. A bit more would probably be healthy if only to challenge our corrupt “2-party is really 1-party” system.

  • avatar

    Wait, are the cops TAKING the cell phones and scanning them, or are they ASKING for the cell phones and scanning them? I hate cops as much as anyone, but they’re free to ask wahtever they like, and more than one fool has consented to a cop asking to search a vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure, asking to search cell phones in the same friendly, non-confrontational way they are trained ask to search a car “Mind if I look in your car?”
      This is versus stating “I would like to search your vehicle and anything I find suspicious may be used to arrest and incarcerate you and/or your passengers along with empowering me to seize your vehicle due to my suspicion  of its use or purchase via illegal activities.  You have the right to refuse this search and ask for my police force to obtain a search warrant.”

      • 0 avatar

        So picture being from out of town and saying to that question, “No, Officer, i’d rather you not search my car”…how well is that going to go over?  My cousin was pulled over in Upstate New York.  The cop didn’t even ask; he told him to stand 20 feet away as he looked in his car.  He asked “what if i refuse to move away?”.  The cop replied “I’ll make you eat dirt”.  The pig threw everything from the trunk of the car and found nothing.  He just got back into his cruiser and left him.  No explanation and his belongings were thrown all over the shoulder of the road.  And you wonder why people hate cops so much they would let them drown…

  • avatar

    Now I’m glad that my work makes us encrypt our phones.

  • avatar

    Wait, wait. If you’re pulled over in MI, and they ask to see your phone, or search it, are you legally required to hand it over?
    Can you refuse? Is it considered the same as a search?
    If you don’t consent to a search or to handing over your phone, what happens then?

    • 0 avatar

      I think that’s the information the ACLU is requesting in their public information request. Because it sounds like the insinuation is the police are scanning people’s phones without consent or probably cause.

      And please don’t give me that tired old excuse of “They got probably cause when they pulled you over,” or, “If you have nothing to hid then why are you worried?” Not that YOU were saying that! Not at all. It’s just that’s what reasonable people always get in response to questioning why the police (or any authority) is engaged in some iffy tactics. It’s total and utter BS, especially in this case.

  • avatar
    Alex L. Dykes

    They can pry my iPhone from my cold, dead hands.

  • avatar

    Hmm, might have to get out the JB Weld and fill in the data port on my phone.  Don’t use it anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      On most modern phones, that micro-USB port is also the only charging port.
      Of course, on my phone there isn’t any data going over it until I enter a password on the phone’s screen, so I question the usefulness of this device.

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Could this have parallels to the recent DHS/Customs practice of being able to confiscate your laptop upon returning to the US from foreign travels, presumably to see what sort of terrorist related activity in which you might have been engaging?

    • 0 avatar

      Not really.  For one, it’s kind of boneheaded to be checking people’s laptops when anyone worth their salt trying to get data across the border could use, oh, I don’t know, some kind of trans-national network.  You know, a way to inter-network a bunch of computers?
      This is actually much simpler: you read certain bits of data off the phone, hoping that the phone stores something remotely useful about where you’ve been and who you know.  Now, mind you, the vendor has totally oversold what this product can do: it’s not actually all that easy to read data from a device’s datastore and memory at roadside over a USB (or bluetooth, as they advertise) connection, not without knocking the phone into diagnostic mode first.  At best you could copy certain, select bits that the manufacturer of the phone makes available (which isn’t that much).
      The catch is, you’d then need to take it back, open it up and analyze it in a useful way, which would take a very, very long time.  This isn’t easy, and it’s next to impossible on, say, a Blackberry with an encrypted datastore.  It’s not like, at roadside, the officer would be able to pull GPS logs and tell if you’re speeding, and if thery’re looking to see if you have Osama Bin Laden on your speed-dial or a Google Maps pin labelled “Where we dump the bodies” they’re going to need to spend a lot of time and effort doing so.
      I think what’s likely happened is someone at the police department played golf with someone at Cellebrite, bought a bunch of Easy-Bake Forensics kits and now they’re trying to make it look like the device is actually useful.

      • 0 avatar

        And we get to pay for the equipment, maintenance, training and for effort to the root around in the data. We pay for the privilege of unwarranted (in both senses of the word) activities.
        But I guess Michigan is flush with tax revenue.
        In some alternate universe.

  • avatar

    Well now, no matter what you say when the cop asks you for your phone, he could just arrest you under some bogus circumstance and confiscate it or let them take it from you at the police station.

    Once it’s out of your posession, you will have NO IDEA what they’ve done with it.  If they can read it, even getting past password protection schemes, then they can plant false evidence on it. 

    I believe this began with cameras.  And it’s related to the big government push to put us all on busses and trains.  It’s the same thing.  Big Brother wants to know where you are at all times.

    If you love your freedom, you can no longer allow any government agency to have access to your phone, because in doing so, you are in effect assisting the government in their case against you.  In one sense, it can be said that you are testifying against yourself. 

    But the question is, who here willing to fight for their phone?  What if it means laying down your own life?

    And it’s all our own damned fault.  We allowed this to happen, when we allowed cameras to be installed by the government.

    • 0 avatar

      The government really has no interest in the typical citizens’ activity, nosy police excepted.  I hardly consider them to be what most mean by Big Government.   But Big Business cares a lot, as you are a great source of information to be sold at a profit…and when it makes no sense, just follow the money trail and the picture becomes crystal clear.

  • avatar
    gator marco

    I read another article concerning the use of these devices by police in Michigan. The police alledgedly “ask” for the cell phone, so there is no illegal search, since the cell phone was volunteered.
    This is the same technique that is used to search a residence without a warrant:
    “Excuse me sir, but could I just step into your house for a moment?” Most folks would think nothing of it, but you have now opened up your entire home for an attic to basement search. The police have been “invited” in, so now they can search anywhere they want.
    How many people, when pulled over for a traffic violation, will give in to this:
    “Sir, if you just let me just look at your cell phone, you can be on your way in just a moment”
    You have now “volunteered” your cell phone, so the police can search for whatever they want.
    Unfortunately, the best advise when dealing with any law enforcement, is to just shut up and not “volunteer” anything, and wait for your attorney.
    I’m going to be looking to see if any cases bubble up through the system, where a motorist stopped for a minor traffic violation in Michigan, is then prosecuted for a higher charge based on whatever was in their cell phone.

    • 0 avatar

      There are already cases like this.  A few months ago, in Decatur, Texas, a man was arrested for child pornography.  Good job, I would normally say.  However, the newspaper I was reading the account from said, to paraphrase, “the man was arrested for child pornography based on a search of his cellphone during a traffic stop for suspected DUI”.  The article didn’t give any more information than that, so I don’t know if it was at the roadside, or at the police station after he was brought in and separated from his cellphone.

  • avatar

    Please keep this in mind the next time that you’re tempted to bash the ACLU over their “clear liberal bias”.

    • 0 avatar

      And the next time a politician–of any stripe, at any level of gov’t–tries to win your vote by promising to “get tough on crime” by giving the police more powers or funding.

    • 0 avatar

      I never understood the Repubs villification of the ACLU.  
      What do they have against a group that looks out for EVERYONE’s rights?
      They’ve got their adversary’s mixed up.

      It’s kind of like the so-called Liberal media.  Outlets that are owned by major corporations have nothing in common with Conservative ideology. Yeah, that makes sense.
      And Hollywood?  Right, their not interested in making money. They just want to push a Liberal agenda!

      Keep ‘um angry and ignorant.

  • avatar

    Under android, I could write a fake driver that could feed a fake image to the device. Even better, report back to the device that you have a 5 terabyte memory card and hand it back 5 TBs worth of zeros.

    GPS data can be misleading. I you get an inaccurate reading that let’s say places your vehicle a couple of thousand feet behind it’s actual location. Then when it gets a more accurate location closer to the vehicle, the software sees it as the vehicle speeding up (or slowing down depending)  to get to that new more accurate location. I’ve got tracks showing my bicycle exceeding the speed of sound when in reality I was crawling up a hill at a snails pace. I think tree cover was causing the inaccuracy, then when I hit a clearing, the device got a more accurate reading and made a quick adjustment.

  • avatar

    The basic 4th Amend protections that applied in the pre-computer age should apply to the modern-day equivalents.
    If you have in your possession a folded piece of paper with the seam lightly closed with sealing wax and the words ‘confidential client-lawyer’ written on the outside, the police could not open that without strong cause or a search order.
    But they can pull an electronic file off your device with the file name ‘confidential client-lawyer.txt” and read it ?

  • avatar

    Wow.  I linked to this post from Reddit, and after reading the article, expected to find a series of raving posts.  Instead, in a niche of the ‘net focused on automobiles, I found one of the more intelligent, thought out (from both sides of the aisle) discussions of a controversial subject.  Nothing bad associated with this being a forum on cars, I’m just saying it’s surprising where you might unexpectedly find a cache of reasonable and intelligent people now and then.  Cool.

  • avatar

    I am so tired of this stuff.

    One question always comes up though: these programs are put in place by people.  Why do these people not seem to have a problem with this stuff?  If I’m in charge, I would have a very hard time with something like this, to the point where I probably would do my best not to allow it.  Do they never worry that putting in place such programs can also violate their rights?  Apparently not.

    • 0 avatar

      It comes down to abstraction.  As in “if you’re sufficiently abstracted from the performance or results, you’re effectively abstracted from responsibility”.
      It’s what sank GM, it’s what’s sinking government, and it’s what has many a large organization, public or private, on the ropes.

  • avatar

    America was founded on anarchist principles 100%. See “conceived in liberty’ by Murray Rothbard. Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence? It’s the first time a government was violently overthrown and the natural rights of individuals were recognized.
    Care to name another country with more individual liberties than the US? Not more handouts, more freedom.
    The true tell-tale sign of a dirty lib is guns; more specifically, support for private ownership of firearms.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Freedom of speech and religion… absolutely. Even the nut can find a soapbox here. 

      Freedom of the press… I would disagree. The mainstream media has become a corporatocracy. Newspapers, radio, network TV and cable are owned lock, stock and barrel by the few. Most magazine publications for that matter. If it weren’t for the internet our country would be completely beholden to the modern day media empires.

      Freedom of assembly… nope… from city councils to national conventions, our politicians truly go out of their way to keep public opinions from their closed doors.

      I don’t know if it’s age or insight. But I’m not happy with the direction all this is going.

  • avatar

    How many of you don’t have a second phone since you did an upgrade (on contract)?  Even if you don’t, you can buy an unlocked phone for under $50.  

    Smart phone hidden while driving through Michigan
    Dumb phone on waist with sim card.

    Yes officer, you can see my phone.  

    Or if you have to travel through michigan, leave your smart phone at home.  I already leave my smartphone at home during international travels due to having in-laws in a 3rd world country.

  • avatar

    Just discovered that my iPhone is syping on me — it has secretly been keeping logs of all the towers it has communicated with since September’09. You can be sure this will be one file siphoned off the iPhone. More (plus link to a desktop visualisation app) at my blog slapphappe dot com

  • avatar

    “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
    -Benjamin Franklin

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Oberkanone: The people that make the rules and hand out the money believe EV’s will not sell without both...
  • Oberkanone: Not available in my home state. 2022 IONIQ 5 will be available in early 2022 in AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, IL,...
  • Arthur Dailey: More great work Corey. Virgil Exner and Harley Earl must be looking down and laughing at the...
  • Syke: I started in the antique car hobby in 1968 (at 18) with a 1937 Special, so I love vintage Buicks. And I hate...
  • kcflyer: I like the looks of it. I like the KIA version even better. But it’s still way too expensive compared...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber