The Fifth Amendment of the US constitution forbids police from forcing you to disclose your phone’s PIN or password, but courts have ruled that protection doesn’t apply to a fingerprint or face unlock. Now, that might be changing.

Here’s how it went down: a warrant was filed in Oakland requesting a raid and seizure of personal property, which included access to all mobile devices—even ones that are locked with biometric data. But a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dropped the hammer, ruling the request was too much, claiming it was “neither limited to a particular person nor device.” In other words, the police wanted a blanket option to force unlocking of all devices on the property, and the judge simply that it was too much.

Forbes writer Thomas Brewster points out why this is such a significant ruling:

But in a more significant part of the ruling, Judge Westmore declared that the government did not have the right, even with a warrant, to force suspects to incriminate themselves by unlocking their devices with their biological features. Previously, courts had decided biometric features, unlike passcodes, were not “testimonial.” That was because a suspect would have to willingly and verbally give up a passcode, which is not the case with biometrics. A password was therefore deemed testimony, but body parts were not, and so not granted Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.

It makes sense, because if passwords and PIN codes are protected, then biometric locking options shouldn’t be considered any different. They’re just a different means to the same end.

Still, this is likely to be a controversial decision and one that will have bigger implications as time goes on.

Cameron Summerson Cameron Summerson
Cameron Summerson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and serves as an Editorial Advisor for How-To Geek and LifeSavvy. He’s been covering technology for nearly a decade and has written over 4,000 articles and hundreds of product reviews in that time. He’s been published in print magazines and quoted as a smartphone expert in the New York Times.
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