Federal court denies search warrant request to unlock iPhones with fingerprints

March 2, 2017 - 

A federal court in Illinois denied the government’s search warrant request to enter a building and unlock all phones with fingerprint recognition functionality, as part of a child pornography investigation, according to a report by Forbes.

In his decision, Judge M. David Weisman said that the government needed to be more specific about the exact devices and data they wanted to obtain.

Although it found that there was “no protectable Fourth Amendment interest in the print itself,” the court said there were privacy issues related to forcing individuals inside a property to use their fingerprints to unlock a smartphone, in particular Apple devices.

“This Court agrees that the context in which fingerprints are taken, and not the fingerprints themselves, can raise concerns under the Fourth Amendment,” Judge Weisman wrote. “In the instant case, the government is seeking the authority to seize any individual at the subject premises and force the application of their fingerprints as directed by government agents. Based on the facts presented in the application, the Court does not believe such Fourth Amendment intrusions are justified based on the facts articulated.”

Judge Weisman also cited Fifth Amendment issues regarding self-incrimination. In past cases, courts had argued that fingerprints were not deemed testimonial as they are not a form of communication, which meant that Fifth Amendment protections did not apply.

In this particular case, however, the Illinois court said that “with a touch of a finger, a suspect is testifying that he or she has accessed the phone before, at a minimum, to set up the fingerprint password capabilities, and that he or she currently has some level of control over or relatively significant connection to the phone and its contents.”

Wesiman also emphasized other issues regarding the case, such as the warrant failing to include detailed information about the individuals believed to be living at the residence other than their names.

The search warrant was also vague about the devices in question, simply stating that it was “likely that Apple brand devices” were inside.

This is the first known case of federal law enforcement being prevented from successfully conducting such broad searches.

Last year, the Department of Justice secured a search warrant which allowed California police officers to search a house and the residents inside to unlock their iPhones using the TouchID fingerprint authentication feature.

However, if the government was able to provide sufficient proof that the data stored on phones inside a building were connected in some way to a crime, it may override a person’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections.

“[Judge Weisman’s] resistance to declaring open-season on searches is absolutely correct,” Marina Medvin of Medvin Law, said. “The government’s request is contrary to the 4th Amendment’s requirement of particularity, which requires that the government describe and know the ‘particular persons’ and the ‘particular things’ prior to the search.”

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.