The United States’ Department of Justice is facing a media grilling after an investigative newspaper report uncovered a search warrant which also enabled federal officers to force biometric authentication on smartphones.
A filing uncovered by Forbes, that was signed off by the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, states that in a house search of a premises in Lancaster, California, that officers could “depress the fingerprints and thumbprints of every person … who is reasonably believed by law enforcement to be the user of a fingerprint sensor-enabled device”.
The memorandum named Apple, Samsung, Motorola and HTC as manufacturers of fingerprint-based authentication, and outlines the government’s argument that taking citizens’ fingerprint or thumbprint without permission violated neither the Fifth nor Fourth Amendment.
The warrant authorizes the seizure of ‘passwords, encryption keys, and other access devices that may be necessary to access the device,’.
In July, in another case of the US courts facing complications in terms of biometrics and smartphones, a Dallas man accused of prostituting girls was ordered by a federal judge to unlock his iPhone with his fingerprint.
Federal court documents that are now unsealed showed that the judge secretly told Accused Dallas pimp Martavious Banks Keys to unlock his iPhone to gain access to his contact, images and whereabouts, reported Forbes.
A ruling in 2014 by an American judge declared it legal to use criminal suspects’ fingerprints to open up smartphones – as opposed to a passcode. Circuit Court Judge Steven C Frucci ruled that, similar to DNA or handwriting, defendants in criminal cases can be forced to submit their fingerprints to unlock mobile devices. Passcodes and passwords are still protected by the Fifth Amendment.
Unfortunately, however, after 48 hours without use an iPhone requires that a fingerprint and a passcode be used, meaning that the suspect could still refuse the “search warrant” for the device.
In March, An LAPD detective was permitted to use a suspect's finger to unlock their iPhone, according to a warrant.