The Minnesota Court of Appeals has produced another wrinkle in the contentious matter of privacy rights with respect to biometrically locked mobile devices. The court recently denied an appeal from a convicted burglar who had tried to argue that a court order compelling him to unlock his phone for police via fingerprint scan had violated his Fifth Amendment right to protection against self-incrimination.
The Fifth Amendment has generally protected the information American citizens hold in their minds, allowing them to refrain from divulging information that could incriminate themselves; for that reason, it would protect someone from having to tell police his phone’s lock screen password, if the phone were to contain incriminating evidence. But with the emergence of smartphones’ fingerprint unlock capability, the question has arisen as to whether the same protections apply.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals says they don’t. In its ruling, the court asserted that the previous district court order to make the burglar submit to a fingerprint scan to unlock his phone was “no more testimonial than furnishing a blood sample”.
It’s another example of a court backing the state’s authority to compel fingerprint unlocks of mobile devices, based on the idea that fingerprint security is not knowledge-based, but physical. And it’s another sign that if criminals are going to store any incriminating information in their phones, they probably shouldn’t use biometric security – it might help to protect them against other criminals, but it won’t necessarily offer any protection against the police.
January 19, 2017 – by Alex Perala