Home Politics City council approves ordinance allowing city police to seize cell phones

City council approves ordinance allowing city police to seize cell phones

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Athens police chief Tom Pyle presented his case during Monday’s city council meeting in order to obtain software that can search cell phone data involved in a crime.

The ordinance, passed by the five council members in attendance, called for $17,000 to be appropriated for the city police department to buy software which will shorten the process of obtaining possible evidence stored on a victim or suspect’s cell phone. Several members of council had concerns about how much power the police department has over the data on a seized phone.

“Our integrity is key to our existence,” Chief Pyle said. “The suspicion that the police department may look into things we aren’t supposed to look at needs to be talked about.”

The concern surrounding the debate centered on how the information on each seized phone could be used.

“What happens to that information?” Second Ward Rep. Michele Papai said. “After the crisis is over and no information is found, you still have the information on that cell phone. How do you proceed with that information?”

In order to be obtained by the police department, each data set must either be voluntarily handed over by the resident involved or seized after an Athens County judge has granted a warrant. Once the information on the phone has been analyzed, some of it may be used as evidence of a crime but the entire data set could be kept in custody by Athens PD. If the evidence is not useful, it can be kept by judge order, given back to the resident, or destroyed.

“If they (the police department) find evidence they would only submit that evidence,” Pyle said. “Other data that was not evidence of crime would not be submitted to court. We would keep the entire data set though.”

Currently when the police department has a case where cell phone information could be of use, they must use the software of the Columbus Police Department. Arranging that a forensics expert analyze the evidence, transporting the cell phone to and from each department and getting results can take an average of four to six weeks, according to Chief Pyle.

“For crimes of passion, that is an eternity,” Pyle said.

The software city council approved could do the same job locally within 24 hours of an event.

Council members questioned Pyle about possibly obtaining the same information through cell phone carriers.

“Most companies don’t keep the data that we are talking about,” Pyle said. “They simply don’t keep text messages. In six weeks that data is gone if they kept it at all.”

Once an officer has the software, Chief Pyle described the downloading process as “plug and play,” meaning it is easily done. One of the officers has already received minimal training with the program.

“Cops aren’t geniuses by any stretch of the imagination and they are certainly not technical geniuses, so there is certainly a minimal amount of training,” Pyle said. “Although the venders tell you that you don’t need training but the Columbus PD have offered to train us.”

The police department is looking at three different companies to provide the service. One company, Cellebrite, runs a forensics division called the Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) which extracts, decodes and analyses actionable data from legacy and smartphones, tablets and portable GPS devices, according to the company’s website. Cellebrite has already sold more than 15,000 UFED units to law enforcement agencies.

The price of the software was of little concern to Chief Pyle in the grand scheme of solving potential crimes.

“Seventeen thousand dollars is a small price to pay from an asset seizure fund to protect our community,” Pyle said.












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