Several months ago, we heard of the first known case of law enforcement requiring a suspect to unlock their phone with Face ID. Forbes reports today, however, that a California judge has ruled that, even with a warrant, the government can’t force people to unlock their devices via biometric features.
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In this particular case, being heard in the U.S. District Court for Northern California, police were seeking a search warrant as part of a Facebook extortion case. The victim in the case was being asked to pay a sum of money to avoid having an “embarrassing” video released to the public.
Law enforcement wanted to use the search warrant to raid the property of people whom they believed to be suspects in the case. Through that raid, they also sought to unlock any phone on the premises with Face ID and Touch ID.
The judge agreed that the cops had probable cause for a warrant, but did not have the right to force the suspects to unlock their devices via biometric technology. Judge Kandis Westmore said the request was “overbroad and neither limited to a particular person nor a particular device.”
Of note, this particular ruling could perhaps be overturned in the future if law enforcement requests a narrower warrant.
On a broader scale, however, Judge Westmore ruled that even with a warrant, suspects cannot be forced to incriminate themselves through biometric technologies like Face ID and Touch ID. The judge explained in her ruling that fingerprints and face recognition are not the same as physical evidence in the context of unlocking a phone:
“If a person cannot be compelled to provide a passcode because it is a testimonial communication, a person cannot be compelled to provide one’s finger, thumb, iris, face, or other biometric feature to unlock that same device,” the judge wrote.
In lieu of having access to the devices found during the raid, Judge Westmore said there are other ways to access the needed data that “do not trample on the Fifth Amendment.” This includes going to Facebook and asking for access to the Facebook Messenger conversations.
In the case we reported on last October, required a suspect to present his face to the iPhone X, thus unlocking the device. At that time, Face ID and Touch ID were not protected under the Fifth Amendment.
The effects of Judge Westmore’s ruling will play out as time progresses, but ideally, this should provide users the same protection for Face ID and Touch ID as offered for alphanumeric passcodes.