Police in Lancaster, California, sought a warrant to force all individuals at a specific premises to unlock their phones via fingerprint scan. More surprisingly, the warrant was granted, by Central District of California attorney Eileen Decker.
It isn’t clear if the warrant was actually used, but its scope is remarkable. While police search warrants are subject to limitations pertaining to reasonable suspicion, this warrant would essentially allow police to search the phones of anyone found at the specified location. Speaking to Forbes, criminal defense lawyer Marina Medvin called it “an unbelievably audacious abuse of power”.
Meanwhile, speaking to The Washington Post, Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Andrew Crocker called the police’ focus on fingerprint unlocking a “clever end-run” around constitutional protections against self-incrimination, since criminal suspects can’t be forced to divulge passwords. The move echoes previous such efforts, with a federal judge ruling in 2013 that a Texas man accused of sexual exploitation of minors must unlock his smartphone via fingerprint scan, and, more recently, a police collaboration with a renowned Michigan State Universtiy researcher to spoof the fingerprints of a murder victim in order to gain access to his phone.
While fingerprint scanners are now widespread on mobile devices, they’re a new enough technology that they represent something of a Wild West in legal terms. It appears more or less inevitable that police efforts to compel biometric unlocking of smartphones will run up against constitutional issues in the higher courts, which could get into thorny philosophical issues such as whether a smartphone itself represents an extension of a citizen’s mind. For now, what’s clear enough is that if you’re using your phone in criminal activities, you should lock it with a passcode, and not your fingerprint.
October 19, 2016 – by Alex Perala