US judge rules police cannot force suspects to unlock their phones using biometrics

This judgement overrides previous rulings where US judges had given authorities permission to force people to unlock Apple iPhone using biometric data


At a time when the Indian authorities are mulling over opening up encryption to law enforcement agencies, a judge in the US has ruled that cops cannot use force to make you unlock your devices.

In what is being hailed as a landmark judgement, a California court (US District Court for the Northern District of California) has ruled that American police cannot force suspects to unlock their phones using facial recognition or fingerprints. This judgement overrides previous rulings where US judges had given law enforcement authorities permission to force people to unlock Apple iPhone using biometric data such as face or fingerprints.

According to a report in Forbes, which has access to this ruling, all logins will be considered equal, be it passcode, pattern lock, face unlock, iris unlock or fingerprint unlock.

 US judge rules police cannot force suspects to unlock their phones using biometrics

The ultrasonic fingerprint scanner on the OnePlus 6T is slow and not very reliable. Image: Tech2/Anirudh Regidi

The case which prompted the judge to rule in favour of privacy involved an instance of Facebook-related extortion attempt. According to the warrant filed, the victim was asked to pay up to the extortionists or an 'embarrassing' video would be uploaded publicly. The police had identified suspects whose property they wanted to raid as well as check their phones which needed to be unlocked using biometrics.

The judge found the property search raid request to be valid but did not grant permission to search their mobile phones by forcing it to be unlocked using biometrics.

“If a person cannot be compelled to provide a passcode because it is a testimonial communication, a person cannot be compelled to provide one’s finger, thumb, iris, face, or other biometric feature to unlock that same device,” said the judge, Kandis Westmore, in the ruling. According to the judge, even with a warrant, the government could not force suspects to incriminate themselves by unlocking their own devices with their biometrics.

Instead of accessing their phone data, which could go beyond what the police were looking for, the judge asked the authorities to look for alternative ways of tackling the issue. For instance, since it was a Facebook-related crime, the authorities could reach out to Facebook to get access to Messenger communications.

Here's the complete judgement.

Judge rules police can'... by on Scribd

The judge's ruling brings the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which forbids the government for forcing anyone to provide a 'testimonial' where a person can incriminate themselves, to the fore. The Fifth Amendment also empowers US citizens to refuse to talk to the police if they so wish — remember that statement the US cops make after making an arrest which goes something to the effect of "You have the right to remain silent."

Courts initially had ruled that providing a passcode to unlock your device is akin to giving a testimonial which can incriminate someone. Biometrics used to unlock devices were not part of this earlier ruling. But according to judge Westmore, the biometrics which help unlock a device are at par with passcodes.

According to ExtremeTech, this ruling can be dismissed by higher courts in the future and the law is still not hundred per cent clear on whether the body's physical features (which is used for biometrics) can be protected under the Fifth Amendment.


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