Police Can Compel Defendants to Give Up Fingerprints

Law Enforcement BiometricsThough privacy and biometrics is still a hotly debated topic of discussion in identity management, a Circuit Court judge has drawn a line when it comes to fingerprints and smartphones. According to an article by Elisabeth Hulette in The Virginian-Pilot, Judge Steven C. Frucci ruled that police can compel criminal defendants to give up their fingerprints in order to give access to data storage devices like smartphones.

This ruling is remarkable because the same cannot be done in regards to passwords or other security factors filed under the “something I know” category of authentication. Judge Frucci’s justification for the distinction hinges on the very thing that makes biometric technology so secure in the first place: it’s not information that’s being asked for.

Likening fingerprints to actual keys, DNA or handwriting samples, Frucci differentiates the biometric logical access factors from pass codes. Requesting a fingerprint is not the same as asking a defendant to disclose knowledge.

Considering that biometric smartphones which feature on-device fingerprint authentication appeal to privacy minded consumers, this ruling may prove controversial. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently went on record about how important user privacy is to his company, a policy that is reflected in how Touch ID and Apple Pay store information. A big privacy focused selling point for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is that payment and biometric information never leaves the handset, so even Apple doesn’t know what your fingerprint looks like or what you’re buying.

Judge Frucci’s ruling shines light on a very interesting cultural shift now that biometrics are becoming mainstream. Much data and critical information is currently stored on our mobile devices, in the cloud and on hard drives. Those storage spaces used to be protected by something we know, but are increasingly guarded by what we are physically. As we migrate away from the insecure password locks in order to protect our information from criminals, it becomes easier to access by agents on the right side of the law.

November 3, 2014 – by Peter B. Counter