What Is It?

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Digital device searches are examinations of data stored on devices that store data digitally and run software, such as a laptop, cell phone, digital audio recorder, or digital camera. Any electronic device can be searched by law enforcement, and the data seized and searched may include both locally stored or remotely stored data. Often, these kinds of searches involve, as we said, cell phones, laptops, desktop computers, and digital audio records and cameras, as well as external storage devices like hard drives. Less often, they may include other types of devices like medical devices and other wearable health tracking-devices, or other “smart” devices like home assistants or home appliances.

The rules for digital searches differ from those of physical searches because of the near-limitless scope and type of digital information that electronic devices retain. For example, people do not typically carry a physical record of all of their personal contacts, messages, appointments, photo albums, videos, or medical records with them, but they might routinely carry the equivalent on their mobile devices. Also, many devices generate and retain information that users never see—like browsing history that you thought was deleted, but remains in a device's unallocated space—leaving a record of data that is not necessarily known to or created by the user, but could be revealed during a search by using special forensic tools.  

For a printable summary of this information, see our Digital Device Searches One-Pager