clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A California cop stole nude photos from a suspect's iPhone

New, 57 comments

Be careful who you unlock your phone for — even if they have a badge. When a suspect in California was detained for driving drunk, she gave the arresting officer her phone's passcode code so he could look up a number. Now, a court case is revealing that the officer did much more than that. Officer Sean Harrington of the California Highway Patrol is being charged with stealing several nude photos from the phone once it was unlocked. Harrington stole photos in two separate incidents — in both cases, suspects voluntarily unlocked their phones — and because he simply emailed the photos to himself, there's a clear paper trail indicating when and how the photos were shared. And since there's clearly no valid law enforcement justification for it, Harrington is being charged with felony data theft, and has already resigned from the highway patrol.

The case is a reminder of just how difficult it is to keep robust security measures in place, particularly when law enforcement is involved. The standard phone-locking mechanism offers a single layer of protection covering all the data in the device, which means it's impossible to access any data without unlocking all of it. The pictures in your camera roll might be more sensitive than the numbers in your phone book, but if you want to get at either of them, you have to unlock both. That's particularly important since police may decide to search a suspect's recent photos or calls looking for evidence of further crimes. Harrington's snooping was particularly egregious, but if there had been the slightest pretense of investigation, it's unlikely he would have been charged. The Supreme Court has ruled that a warrant is required to compel a suspect to unlock their phone, but for arrestees who need to find a phone number, that protection may not be as powerful as it looks.