Canada: Police can search phones without warrant

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Thursday that law enforcement can search the cellphone of someone they’ve just arrested as long as the search is related to that arrest.

The decision is starkly different from the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer, which said police needed a warrant before conducting such a search. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 4-3 in its decision.

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“The search must be truly incidental to the arrest,” the Canadian opinion read. “The nature and the extent of the search must be tailored to its purpose. In practice, this will mean that only recently sent or drafted emails, texts, photos and the call log will, generally, be available.”

Police will also be required to take “detailed notes of what they have examined.”

In the U.S. opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts was succinct.

“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant," he wrote.

The differing opinions highlight the legal complexities of electronic searches.

All sides involved — the FBI, Congress, privacy advocates, tech companies — have been engaged in heated debate on the issue since former government contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the existence of secret U.S. digital spying programs.

A main point of contention is when and how government officials should acquire a warrant before searching electronic devices.

The FBI has been pushing for updated rules to ease remote hacks and searches of electronic devices. Privacy and civil liberties advocates have strongly opposed the move.

In Congress, lawmakers have tried — and failed — to make it more difficult for the National Security Agency to acquire remote search warrants.

The issue is expected to continue in the next Congress.