Journalists, lock up your cellphones

ShareThis

Journalists who use their cellphones may want to get into the habit of password-protecting their devices in the wake of a ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal which found police do not need a warrant to search unprotected phones.

The case in question involved the arrest of a man on suspicion of armed robbery. During the arrest police searched the man’s cellphone and retrieved information that eventually helped convict him. On appeal, the man’s lawyer argued the cellphone was analogous to a briefcase in which had been stored private documents and photos.  Ordinarily, police would be required to obtain a search warrant before looking inside the briefcase, especially if they wanted to use any information they discovered in a subsequent trial.

It is a view Courts have generally upheld. In 2011, information police retrieved from a cellphone that was used to identify and eventually arrest another man in connection with importing heroin was ruled inadmissible by the Ontario Superior Court. In making its finding, the Court stated that police would be required to obtain a warrant before rummaging through a sealed box of files found in possession of a suspect at the time of arrest.  In principle, said the Court, there ““is no reason why the search of a phone should be treated any differently.”

In 2009, an Ontario Superior Court jury convicted a Markham man of murder in the brutal killing of his estranged wife.  During the trial however, the presiding judge ruled inadmissible evidence police obtained from the man’s cellphone because they had not obtained a search warrant.

Of course, a journalist doing her or his job isn’t the same as someone suspected of importing heroin or of murdering their estranged partner, but the decision by the Court of Appeal allowing police to search cellphones without a warrant has the potential to reach right into the contents of a reporter’s phone.

A sacred trust of any journalist is the protection of their sources.  Journalists have risked contempt of court charges in order to safeguard that information, and at times have even gone to jail.  Imagine if a reporter on the job covering a real-time protest was scooped up by police along with other protestors.  If police rummaged through the reporter’s cellphone before releasing her, what information might be revealed?  Phone numbers, links to files full of sensitive information—all conceivably would be fair game.

What if police had obtained a warrant to search the offices of a news organization, does the Court of Appeal decision mean that if reporters do not lock their cellphones police are within their rights to request and search its contents?  And don’t think pressing the ‘delete’ button will protect your data.  These days a competent forensic specialist would have little trouble retrieving lost data.

It may be a pain to lock your phone every time you’re not using it, but it could be a habit well worth developing.

Comments

Regardless of what the police can do with your phone, leaving it unlocked these days is pure foolishness! Smartphones are logged into email, social media, and banking information. Forget the cops, think about what a theif can do with it!

Comment Policy

J-Source invites comments on any content items or on any other topics relevant to journalism. Those posting comments are expected to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness that would be recognized by those who practise, teach or study journalism.

  • Comments are restricted to registered users. You must register with your full first and last name in order to be eligible to comment.
  • Please communicate as effectively and intelligently as you would in a professional or academic forum, focusing on the issues at hand rather than the characters or characteristics of those involved.
  • This forum is intended for discussion of the craft of journalism, not of the issues of the day that journalists cover; please do not post story tips or press releases.
  • We moderate the forum for adherence to these standards of discourse, and reserve the right to decline any comment or restrict any user from commenting without giving reasons. Every effort is made to approve valid comments within 24 hours of submission.
source