Searches of electronic devices

Can phones, computers, or other electronic devices be searched by police in the UK.

(Draft notes)

If a police officer in the UK stops an searches you are you legally obligated to unlock your smartphone so they can go through it?

Not in a normal stop and search situation under Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but if police already have reasonable grounds for believing a phone contains evidence of a crime they could ask for it to be unlocked.

However search powers may also be exercised under the Terrorism Act or Misuse of Drugs Act.[1]

(Terrorism Act 2000 Section 43, 44 or Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 section 23)

If they seize the device and unlocking is refused, and they have no other means of access, then they can issue a written order that the device be unlocked using Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 part III. This is a written request from a senior officer and would not be done on a stop-and-search.

If you are arrested, do the police have the legal authority to use their own means to unlock your smartphone without a court order/warrant?

If the police have legal authority to search your phone (which an arrest probably implies) and are able to unlock it by alternative means, then I believe they can do so.

If the police can legally use their own methods to search your smartphone after you are arrested, do they then also have the legal authority to search your cloud storage files?

Cloud storage files that have been accessed on the device may still technically be “on” the device, thus would be no different to any data as far as forensics is concerned. For files that have not been accessed, the status of the police's right to this data would be - I assume - unconnected to the seizure of the phone.

I’ve been told that the police have the forensic tools to bypass any type of security (like pass codes) on your phone in seconds. Do you know if this is accurate?

This is going to depend on the phone/software involved - but I imagine that phone forensics tools would be able to bypass some security. But if police could break a device in seconds, potentially anyone could, and it would just be regarded as weak security.

Apple, for example, has guidelines about access to locked device. [2]

Let’s say the police can search my phone, would I legally be able to wipe my phone remotely (as you can do with iPhones) after they have confiscated it? Or I’m guessing that would look like I’m destroying the evidence then?

I don’t know if this has been tested in practice. I imagine police are aware of it and take action to prevent it from occurring. (Switch it off or drop it in a faraday bag.

e.g. ACPO Good Practice states [3]

“If the device is switched on, power it off. It is important to isolate the device from receiving signals from a network to avoid changes being made to the data it contains."

Lord Taylor of Holbeach:[4]

There are a number of pieces of legislation which allow for search and seizure of items including mobile telephones, for example, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), the Terrorism Act 2000, the Extradition Act 2003. These laws only allow data to be searched if the phone has been lawfully seized under a power in the legislation. Property interference by the Security and Intelligence Agencies may be authorised under the Intelligence Services Act 1994 or the Security Service Act 1989. Property interference by the police may be authorised by the Police Act 1997.