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.