LA authorities spark debate by using legal wrangling to force LA woman to unlock iPhone

FBI forced LA woman to unlock her iPhone with a fingerprint scan, sparking a debate on whether or not forced smartphone access violates the fifth amendment.


FBI cyberslueths tracking suspected identity thieves obtained court orders that required a woman to press her finger on an iPhone to unlock it, according to a report by LA times. This is one of the first few cases where authorities have used court orders to get past biometric security on a handheld device, but such incidents are expected to occur more frequently. The whole process from arrest to obtaining a warrant from a magistrate judge happened within 45 minutes.

This is a controversial legal grey area, with two conflicting interpretations. The controversy is because, such forced access to mobile phones may be inconsistent with the fifth amendment law, which protects people from being forced to incriminate themselves.

One side of the debate argues that forced access to a smartphone is not protected by the fifth amendment, as there is no speech. Placing your finger in a particular spot on a device cannot be considered a testimony in itself. Disclosing a passcode for the same device, however, is covered by the fifth amendment. The other side holds the point that as the device responded to the keypress, a self incriminating testimonial is provided even without speech.

There is no clear law on the extent to which law enforcement authorities can go to get past devices with bio-metric security yet. The debate is raging because of contrasting interpretations of the existing fifth amendment law.


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