Police going after fingerprints to unlock suspects’ iPhones, other devices

Occasionally, my children wrestle me for something my ancestors couldn’t have imagined was of value — my fingerprint.

Gripping my arm, they try to force me to press my iPhone with my right thumb. My thumb’s fingerprint is their gateway to Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, apps I have on the phone and so on. These battles are mostly good fun until I’ve had enough.

It’s an odd experience trying to keep my biometrics away from my kids (so much easier in my parents’ day when all they had to do was hide the TV’s remote control).

But wrestling people for their fingerprints to unlock a computer or a smartphone is exactly what law enforcement has been doing around the country, writes the Los Angeles Times.

While all eyes had been on the FBI’s effort to crack the passcode of the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, the government has moved on to other methods to open up newer models of phones.

The practice raises questions about whether there should be a higher legal bar for the police to be able to obtain fingerprints to unlock devices.

Since 2013, Apple has put its fingerprint sensor, known as Touch ID, in phones and tablets. Other companies have fingerprint scanners on their devices as well.

As The Verge points out, fingerprints like passcodes can be stolen. But fingerprints can’t be changed, making it potentially easier to break into people’s phones and tablets.

The Times article says that law enforcement typically doesn’t have to get a search warrant to get someone’s fingerprint. That has long been thought of as “real or physical evidence” sourced from the body.

Communication, in contrast, the Times writes, can’t “be compelled without violating the 5th Amendment,” which offers protection against self incrimination.

So are fingerprints still just physical evidence or actual communication? It seems it would depend on the circumstances.

In one recent Los Angeles case, federal officials secured a search warrant to force the girlfriend of an alleged Armenian gang member to swipe her finger on an iPhone that had been seized.

Susan Brenner, a law professor at the University of Dayton, argues that the woman’s rights were violated.

By forcing her to provide her fingerprint on the iPhone, she “authenticated” its contents and was essentially forced to testify, without saying a word.

Brenner said:

By showing you opened the phone, you showed that you have control over it. It’s the same as if she went home and pulled out paper documents — she’s produced it.

Photo: Apple’s iPhone 6. (Getty Images)


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  • Thelip95032

    Our government has become like communist Russia, “we will violate your rights to protect you”. Increasingly the FBI is saying they have the “right to do anything in the name of safety”. At the rate the country is going I think I will see a second civil war in my lifetime.

  • TCWriter

    The police, prosecutors, tough-on-crime legislators and the courts have been steadily chipping away at Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights to the point that you simply don’t have any when you’re in your car or out of your house. Your digital life is being similarly compromised.

  • Cheap & Nothing Wasted

    Just don’t ever set the fingerprint sensor on your phone or tablet.