The Israeli mobile data technology company Cellebrite has developed a device that may help law enforcement determine whether a driver was illegally using a cellphone prior to an accident. But the device, known as a textalyzer, whose name mirrors that of the breathalyzer used during DUI stops, may be more tech than the task calls for, and its robust capabilities may be a stumbling block to implementation.
Texting while driving has become a major safety concern throughout the country. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, texting causes impairment similar to drinking four beers and creates a 23 percent greater danger of causing a crash. That’s why 46 states and Washington, D.C., have banned texting for all drivers. The textalyzer would allow police to inspect a driver’s phone at the scene of an accident. Unfortunately, the device raises several concerns.
First of all, Cellebrite claims its device can “extract and decode mobile device data such as call logs, contacts, calendar, text messages, media files and more.” That’s much more than the cops would need for their inquiry. Cellebrite claims they can dial back the capabilities, but how reassuring is that for the citizen who has to turn over his device for a warrantless search?
Many tech watchers suspect that Cellebrite was the company that helped the FBI hack the iPhone 5C taken from the San Bernardino shooters after their terrorist attack. While some would argue that full use of robust decryption technology is justified in that case, using that same technology for traffic accidents is another matter.
Furthermore, the fact that a person has been in an accident doesn’t mean he or she has committed a crime. Under established Fourth Amendment principles, the police cannot initiate a search without probable cause and either a warrant or exigent circumstances that require them to act immediately. Since cellphone providers generally hold customer usage records for at least 18 months, police have no reason to act immediately.
Finally, according to the Huffington Post, the data gathered may have little probative value. For example, in some cases the data could prove a text reached a driver around the time of the accident, but not that the driver was reading the text. The data can also pinpoint the time of phone use, while the precise moment of the accident could be impossible to determine.
This technology makes warrantless searches easy, but that doesn’t mean we should give police the power to use it. In fact, it’s a very good reason to urge restraint.
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