Know Your Rights: The Fourth Amendment & Digital Devices 

How does U.S law protect us against illegal searches and seizures of our digital devices? 
June 23rd, 2023
Author: Alexia Bowie 


The United States Constitution was written and ratified over 200 years ago, yet we still find ourselves applying its law to today’s technological developments. In 1791, an amendment to the Constitution was ratified that protects the American people from unreasonable searches and seizures of their effects without a specific warrant for the place, thing, and/or person to search or seize. In the years before technology, a person’s effects would be something like a house or a car rather than what we have today, which includes a smartphone or computer. 

As it pertains to technology, the Founding Fathers could not have possibly known it would come this far and grow the way it did. Since we apply this amendment to a person’s effects (which would now include digital devices such as a smartphone or computer), the question arises to what extent authorities have control over our devices. When attempting to seize or search someone’s device, what do the authorities prioritize first? Privacy or security?

Privacy vs. Security

Privacy and security are two terms that are mistakenly used interchangeably when describing the condition of one’s digital device. Privacy refers to one’s personal information or data and the permissions you give others to access or view this information. This is different from the actual protection and care for said information, which is what security is. While the two terms relate to one’s information, one is taken more seriously by law enforcement, while tech companies prioritize the other. Let’s explore an instance where the privacy and security of a digital device came into conflict. 

Apple vs. FBI

On December 2nd, 2015, a terrorist attack occurred at a social services center in San Bernardino, California. During the investigation of the 2015 San Bernardino attacks, the FBI seized a locked iPhone from someone they suspected was involved in the attacks. Because the iPhone was locked, the agency was unable to unlock it and obtain any information about the suspect, so they needed to ask Apple for help. The FBI applied for a court order that required Apple to create special software, which was a new version of the iPhone operating system, in order to bypass the security features of the iPhone. Apple denied this order and vouched for their consumers, claiming that the FBI’s proposal was “lawful and unconstitutional”. Apple claimed in their customer letter released in February of 2016 that creating such software for iPhone, would have the potential to affect all iPhones This would create a backdoor for unauthorized individuals to unlock any iPhone in their physical possession. 

The FBI’s agenda in this case was to solve their case and prevent an attack such as the one in San Bernardino from happening again, however, Apple prioritized the security of their consumers. In accordance with the Fourth Amendment, Apple made sure that their consumers were protected on their devices by refusing to create software they knew would be insecure and exploitative. The thing to note about this case is that the FBI was able to propose this idea to the courts, and it went through. At times, it takes tech companies refusing certain orders to ensure the safety and privacy of their consumers. Law enforcement and other government agencies do not always have privacy and the importance of digital security is at the forefront of their minds.

With regards to law enforcement officials, they must be in accordance with the Fourth Amendment to search and seize your belongings, digital devices included. Law enforcement often forgets about the expectation of privacy for citizens in the U.S., which creates a troublesome relationship between the two parties. 

Riley vs. California

In 2009, a police officer pulled David Leon Riley over because of expired license registration tags. During this traffic stop, the officer found that Riley’s driver’s license was suspended, resulting in the car being impounded. A mandatory inventory search of the car was performed, and the officer found two guns in Riley’s vehicle. Riley was then arrested for possession of the firearms. Along with this arrest, the police made an interesting order to have Riley’s phone, which was previously in his pocket, searched and analyzed by a gang unit detective, which revealed gang-related photographs and videos. Before Riley’s trial, he moved to suppress the evidence found on his cellphone, claiming that the search was in violation of his first amendment – Freedom of Speech. 

This case moved up to the Supreme Court, where the Court agreed with Riley, stating that the warrantless search and subsequent arrests made by law enforcement in this case were unconstitutional. The search was found to be an invasion of privacy and should not have occurred as it did not impede on officer safety nor was digital evidence at risk of being destroyed, which would be an adequate reason for a warrantless search. Riley’s case is another one of the ways in which the Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures in the United States.


In all facets of our lives in the U.S., we have the expectation of privacy. When it comes to our digital devices, there is no exception. Whether it be government agencies such as the FBI or smaller law enforcement agencies, the opposing party is allowed to combat their wishes and vouch for themselves under the Fourth Amendment. 

Stay up to date with the laws regarding your rights by checking out these websites —> 

  1. Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  2. Your Digital Rights
  3. American Civil Liberties Union

Always remember: no search or seizure of your device can be done without a specific search warrant and reasonable suspicion! 

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