Federal Court And FBI Tag Team Forcing A Suspect To Unlock iPhone With Fingerprint

The government’s ability to compel you to cough up the contents of your smartphone is growing with each day. Just last week, we reported that the U.S. Supreme Court has granted federal law enforcement agencies the ability to issue search warrants for computing devices in any jurisdiction in the United States; an act that U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said would allow the government to “search thousands or millions of computers at once; and the vast majority of the affected computers would belong to the victims, not the perpetrators, of a cybercrime.”

Now, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Rosenberg has granted the FBI the the authority to force a suspect to unlock her iPhone using her fingerprint. According to the LA Times, this piggybacks on previous rulings from the Supreme Court, which state that “police can search phones with a valid warrant and compel a person in custody to provide physical evidence such as fingerprints without a judge's permission.”

iPhone 6s touch id

The iPhone in question belongs to Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan, who is the girlfriend of a suspected Armenian gang member. Although the FBI hasn’t stated why it wants to unlock the phone, it isn’t a stretch to think that it wants to poke through the contents of the smartphone in order to find incriminating evidence on Bkhchadzhyan’s boyfriend.

However, University of Dayton law professor Susan Brenner contends that granting such authority is a serious breach of the Fifth Amendment. "By showing you opened the phone, you showed that you have control over it," Brenner said in an interview with the LA Times. "It's the same as if she went home and pulled out paper documents — she's produced it."

California State University criminal justice processor George M. Dery III sees things differently, however, stating, “Before cell phones, much of this information would be found in a person's home," and police commonly obtained warrants to search a premise for evidence. These days, much of that same information can be found on a person’s smartphone. “This has a warrant. Even though it is a big deal having someone open up their phone, they've gone to a judge and it means there's a likelihood of criminal activity."

With that being said, the FBI only has a short window to access information stored on the iPhone. Touch ID access will automatically time-out after 48 hours, and requires a passcode to be entered in to keep using the device.