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U.S. judge rules federal investigators can use suspect biometrics to unlock devices

U.S. judge rules federal investigators can use suspect biometrics to unlock devices

A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that federal investigators can use a suspect’s biometric features to unlock electronic devices, The National Law Review reports.

District of Columbia magistrate judge G. Michael Harvey ruled that a suspect in a computer-fraud investigation can be compelled to unlock a computer, cell phone, or other device, but he also outlined a standard, consisting of three parts, for doing so. If the procedure is carried out in the vicinity of the premises to be searched, if law enforcement agents had reasonable suspicion that the suspect had committed a crime, and that the device belonged to the suspect, the suspect could be compelled to unlock the device, Harvey ruled.

Harvey reached his decision after asking the federal public defender office to participate in the case due to the Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues raised in dealing with the new legal territory associated with device unlocking.

“Like other courts addressing similar issues, this court is mindful of the important privacy interests at stake when government accesses information on a digital device,” he wrote in the decision. “However, even when presented with legal questions impacted by changing technology that has triggered significant modifications of individuals’ behavior, a lower court cannot ignore or rewrite the constitutional principles the Supreme Court has articulated.”

A federal judge ruled in 2016 that a suspect could be compelled to unlock an iPhone with a fingerprint, though in another case in 2017 a federal judge found the standard for compelling a suspect to provide biometrics had not been met.

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