A Northern California federal judge recently ruled that police cannot force individuals to unlock their smartphones via biometric features. According to Judge Kandis Westmore, forcing device owners to unlock devices using facial scans, fingerprints, or any other form of biometric identity verification violates Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
Law Enforcement Can’t Require Biometrics or Passcodes
The landmark ruling came in a case involving Facebook Messenger and an alleged extortion case. In this specific situation, suspects were allegedly threatening to release a compromising video.
Judge Westmore also clarified that biometrics tools, such as facial scans, are different from physical evidence and that the government cannot force suspects to incriminate themselves by opening their devices.
The ruling comes on the heels of a related court decision that was issued last October in Florida. In that case, officers were prevented from compelling suspects to unlock their phones using passcodes. With the combination of these rulings, both passcodes and biometrics have been deemed forms of testimonial communication that government officials cannot force on suspects.
The Government v Device Manufacturers
For several years, device manufacturers, including Apple, have lobbied against forced device unlocks. In March 2018, the inspector general’s office reported that the FBI failed to explore all potential options for unlocking an iPhone that was involved in the 2016 San Bernardino shooting. Even though an FBI unit chief was aware that a third-party contractor was close to unlocking the device, the FBI went ahead and sued Apple for failing to comply with the investigation.
The report’s release came during a time when federal law enforcement officials were renewing the debate around encrypted data access in criminal investigations. Officials are pushing for legal mandates that require tech companies to build tools into devices that would support access to encrypted data in criminal investigations.
The Future of the Decision
With Judge Westmore’s ruling, companies now have a much stronger case for protecting digital privacy. It remains to be seen whether or not her decision will be challenged or overturned, although a recent Supreme Court ruling does provide some possible defense. In Carpenter v United States, judges ruled that police need a warrant based on probable cause in order to obtain smartphone location data from carriers.
The Northern California ruling is another chapter in a growing debate around what responsibility technology companies have to support criminal investigations. Technology continues to evolve beyond the law, furthering the gap between innovative leaders and government bodies.