Can the police unlock your phone?

The police do not have general search powers to examine the contents of your phone. They require statutory authority, a search warrant, a disclosure notice, a court order, or must be acting on a genuine suspicion that justifies such an intrusive search.

Most personal searches are conducted under Section 1 of PACE 1984 and Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which primarily target physical items like weapons, drugs, or stolen goods. These powers do not permit the police to ‘investigate for further offences’ on the spot by searching a person’s mobile phone.

Under Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, individuals are required to disclose a passcode or password to any relevant police officer or government agency acting under statutory powers to seize, detain, inspect, search, or interfere with documents or property. However, this power requires a written notice detailing the protected information, the reason for the notice, the issuer’s authority, permission details, the compliance deadline, and the required disclosure format.

Mobile phones often contain highly sensitive personal data, and searching their contents could potentially breach the GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018. Data processing must be proportional and necessary to be lawful. Furthermore, unauthorized or unjustified access to personal data on a mobile phone could constitute a breach of these data protection laws and violate a person’s Article 8 right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.

See also “Do you have to give the police your phone passcode?”