Sunday, December 13, 2020

Students Have No 4th Amendment Rights Administrators Are Bound To Acknowledge

gizmodo |  In May 2016, a student enrolled in a high-school in Shelbyville, Texas, consented to having his phone searched by one of the district’s school resource officers. Looking for evidence of a romantic relationship between the student and a teacher, the officer plugged the phone into a Cellebrite UFED to recover deleted messages from the phone. According to the arrest affidavit, investigators discovered the student and teacher frequently messaged each other, “I love you.” Two days later, the teacher was booked into the county jail for sexual assault of a child.

The Cellebrite used to gather evidence in that case was owned and operated by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. But these invasive phone-cracking tools are not only being purchased by police departments. Public documents reviewed by Gizmodo indicate that school districts have been quietly purchasing these surveillance tools of their own for years.

Gizmodo has reviewed similar accounting documents from eight school districts, seven of which are in Texas, showing that administrators paid as much $11,582 for the controversial surveillance technology. Known as mobile device forensic tools (MDFTs), this type of tech is able to siphon text messages, photos, and application data from student’s devices. Together, the districts encompass hundreds of schools, potentially exposing hundreds of thousands of students to invasive cell phone searches.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the country with over 630,000 students enrolled in over 1,000 institutions in the 2018-2019 school year, has a Cellebrite device it says is used by a team that investigates complaints of employee misconduct against students. Its listed description for the job of Digital Forensics Investigator states, those with that role assist with “student safety issues, fraud, collusion, and/or conflicts of interest,” specifically mentioning expertise with Cellebrite as a qualification.

The Fourth Amendment protects people in the United States from unreasonable government searches and seizures, including their cell phones. While a search without a warrant is generally considered unreasonable, the situation in schools is a little different.

In the case New Jersey v. T.L.O, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools do not necessarily need a warrant to search students so long as officials have a reasonable belief a student has broken the law or school policy, and the search is not unnecessarily intrusive and reasonably related in scope to the circumstances under which the search was originally justified. The “reasonableness” standard is extremely broad, largely deferential to the whims of school officials, and can serve as the basis for fishing expeditions; courts have only rarely ruled that school searches violate the Fourth Amendment.

“The problem is as much with the legal standards as with the technology,” said Barbara Fedders, an assistant professor of law at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who focuses on the intersection of criminal law and school discipline. “Schools take student’s cell phones for all kinds of reasons, not because they think they are doing anything pernicious; you can see where racial bias could factor into this.”

Cell phones are deeply personal items, and it’s easy to imagine how embarrassing and potentially catastrophic it would be if an administrator or school resource officer used a Cellebrite to download students’ private text messages, photos, social media posts, location history, and more.