Feds back phone searches, oppose ‘kill switches’

The Obama administration is warning that “kill switch” technology can make it harder for police to search suspected criminals’ cellphones.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court this week, the Justice Department argued that “searching an arrestee’s cell phone immediately upon arrest is often critical to protecting evidence against concealment in a lock or encrypted phone or remote destruction. 

The ability to automatically wipe a phone’s contents has “successfully destroyed evidence” in the past and could do so in the future, it added. 

“Whether information can be destroyed by the arrestee or by a confederate, the governmental interest is the same: the preservation of evidence,” the department wrote.

The administration’s brief was filed in a case on cellphone privacy set to be argued before the high court next week. The case centers on an alleged Boston drug dealer whose phone was searched by police without a warrant. They later went to his house and found drugs and a gun.

By law, authorities are allowed to search people’s property “incident to arrest” to find weapons and other hazards, but civil liberties groups have alleged that searching a cellphone goes too far. Privacy advocates and librarians have urged the court to uphold an appeals court ruling that would bar authorities from searching cellphones when someone is arrested. 

The Justice Department countered that that argument would go too far to protect against a nonexistent threat of overly intrusive police, while ignoring real dangers about lost evidence.

“Respondent would have this Court disregard history and the very real practical problems inherent in cell-phone searches in favor of entirely unsubstantiated fears that officers will use their authority to explore the private lives of people arrested for jaywalking and littering,” it argued.

Some state and city attorneys general have supported measurements to require kill switches in cellphones, which would let people lock or wipe the devices of all information if stolen or lost. Phones are a common target of theft across the country but would be less attractive to thieves if they could be wiped, advocates argue.

This month, the wireless phone industry launched a voluntary effort to put the technology in new phones or allow users to freely download it. Apple, Samsung and the four national carriers have all signed up so far. 

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in United States v. Wurie and another cellphone privacy case, California v. Riley, on Tuesday.