There were many people in the U.S. crying foul when it was revealed that law enforcement had a man unlock his iPhone using Face ID, since the man couldn't be compelled to unlock a device secured with a passcode. Constitutionally guaranteed protections that are given to a person to prevent them from self-incrimination weren't extended to biometric devices like facial recognition and fingerprint scanners. A federal judge has now stepped up and issued a ruling that greatly changes the landscape for law enforcement and those accused of a crime.
The U.S. federal judge has ruled that the police can't force a person to unlock their iPhone or Android device that is secured with Face ID, Touch ID, or similar biometric devices. That effectively gives the same protection to biometric security devices that devices with passcodes had before. The ruling was made after filing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on January 10. In the filing, law enforcement asked for a search warrant for a residence in Oakland, California to search a suspect's property for evidence in an alleged blackmail attempt.
As part of the request for the warrant, law enforcement had asked the courts to compel the individuals present in the search to unlock electronic devices in the home that were secured with a fingerprint reader, facial recognition, or iris recognition. The court denied those specific requests noting that they "ran afoul of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments" specifically in relation to unlocking devices.
The judge in the case is Kanis Westmore, and the ruling deemed the request by law enforcement as "overbroad" because it wasn't limited to any particular computers or devices owned by an individual or multiple persons. The judge also ruled that the government and agents couldn't use biometrics to force the unlock of a device due to the potential for self-incrimination.
"If a person cannot be compelled to provide a passcode because it is testimonial communication, a person cannot be compelled to provide one's finger, thumb, iris, face, or other biometric feature to unlock that same device," wrote Westmore. "The undersigned finds that a biometric feature is analogous to the 20 nonverbal, physiological responses elicited during a polygraph test, which are used to determine guilt or innocence, and are considered testimonial."
While the ruling could be overturned in the future, and will undoubtedly be challenged, it sets a precedent that could impact many other cases now and in the future. It will also make it more difficult for law enforcement to gather data they need in investigations.