But a new report shows the widespread use by law enforcement of tools that circumvent those technical barriers. The report from Upturn, a Washington, D.C.-based civil society organization, zeroes in on law enforcement use of mobile device forensic tools (MDFTs).

These hardware and software tools collect forensic data from mobile phones: the texts, emails, and photos stored on the phone; data regarding when the texts and emails were sent and where the photos were taken; the locations—if location tracking tools are turned on—where the phone and, presumably, the user have been; and when they were there.

According to the report, 2,000 of the United States’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, including 50 of the nation’s largest police departments, either have purchased MDFTs or have access to these tools.

Susan Landau