No one questions the legality of banning so-called distracted driving–at least not intelligent people–but a new device that can help law enforcement crack down on offenders already has some privacy and security advocates up in arms. Called a Textalyzer, after the famously feared device known as a breathalyzer, this gadget can help the police figure out if you were using your smartphone before the crash.


Different states in the US have different rules concerning “using” the phone while driving. While some initially sought to ban texting, they quickly had to broaden the scope to include emailing, checking social media, and yes, even taking selfies, hence the name change on the charge to “distracted driving.” Other states have more serious regulation in place, and consider the offense to encompass even holding it to your ear to make a phone call. Such was the push from automakers to get hands-free Bluetooth capability installed in vehicles in the last few years.

The security concern comes from the fact that, should the measure pass in its original state of New York, officers will be permitted to take up the phones of all parties involved in an accident (and presumably at a traffic stop, much like for suspected drunk driving) and scan them for recent activity. Supporters of the bill claim that the scan only shows them if the phone was used and how, but that it does not reveal any information whatsoever about the content of the use, such as displaying the text that was sent, the Facebook status that was posted, or other incriminating personal evidence.

Back in 2014, the US Supreme Court ruled that smartphones contain just as much personal data and content as the owner’s house, encompassing letters that were sent, photos that were taken, and more. Therefore, the court ruled that smartphones are protected from searches in exactly the same way as the owner’s home would be; there must either be a search warrant or clear probable cause for the police to touch either one. In this case, advocates state that even seeing the phone was used is a violation of personal property.