A warrant requirement for analysing data stored on smartphones

Posted on 28/05/2015

On 22 April 2015, the Dutch high court of Arnhem-Leeuwarden possibly set a precedent with far-reaching consequences. In this particular criminal case, a law enforcement official seized a smartphone and subsequently read and copied WhatsApp messages stored on the smartphone. The defence successfully argued that the investigation method was in violation of the right to privacy as articulated in art. 8 ECHR. The high court of Arnhem-Leeuwarden agreed and deemed the current regulations not foreseeable.

Currently, as explained in my previous blog post, law enforcement officials can seize a smartphone and examine all data stored on it in the context of a criminal investigation to obtain evidence without any notable legal thresholds. However, the high court points out that smartphones contain “not only access to traffic data, but also the contents of communications and private information of a smartphone user” . Because the analysis of such data severely infringes in the right to privacy, the current regulations for seizing and analysing data stored on smartphones are not adequately regulated according to the court.

Right to privacy and analysis of information on smartphones

Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recently decided in the case of Prezhdarovi v Bulgaria that (1) a judicial warrant requirement and (2) a limitation of the scope of the sought after data on computers is preferable when law enforcement authorities seize computers and analyse data stored on computers. Considering the serious privacy infringement that takes place when personal data that is stored on computers is analysed by law enforcement authorities, adequate safeguards in the domestic laws of States should protect the involved individuals against arbitrary interferences of State in their personal lives according to the ECtHR.

The decisions of the high court of Arnhem-Leeuwarden and ECtHR indicate that the Dutch regulations for the seizure of computers such as smartphones require amendments in order to adequately protect the right to privacy. In June 2014, the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice already suggested that amendments were required for analysing data on computer systems. Yet, these amendments only suggested the legal thresholds of an order of a public prosecutor, whereas the ECtHR seems to prefer a prior review of an investigating judge – i.e., basically a warrant requirement – to analyse data on computer systems.

International trend?

Interestingly, almost a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the landmark case of Riley v. California that a judge’s warrant is required in order to seize a smartphone and analyse data stored on a smartphone. The protection of the warrant requirement was deemed appropriate, because: “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life”.

Obviously, modern cell phones do not contain the ‘privacies of life’ only for Americans. So tell me, does your domestic State law require a warrant to seize computers and analyse data stored on those devices?

This is a cross-post from LeidenLawBlog.nl.

=== Updata ===

My commentary (in Dutch) on the case of 22 April 2015 is available here (in .pdf).

Note that, in the meantime, the Dutch courts of Oost-Brabant and Noord-Holland desmissed the verdict of the high court of Arnhem-Leeuwarden, stating that article 94 of the Dutch Code of Criminal Procedure allows for the seizure of smartphones and subsequent search of data stored on the device.

The court of Amsterdam decided on 18 June 2015 that art. 8 ECHR was not infringed, because law enforcement restricted the search of data stored on the smartphone to  contact details. Thefefore, the search was not deemed disproportionate. Interestingly, other judges of the court of Noord-Holland decided on 4 June 2015 in a different case that seizing a smartphone based on art. 94 DCCP does infringe art. 8 ECHR. Clearly, the courts in the Netherlands are devided on the question whether seizing a smartphone based on art. 94 DCCP infringes art. 8 ECHR. Apparently, the Public Prosecution’s Office went in appeal and the question will be brought  to the Dutch Surpeme Court.

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