For the first time in a federal case, a suspect has been forced to unlock their iPhone using their fingerprint. The LA Times reports the FBI was able to successfully persuade a federal judge to sign a warrant compelling an identity theft suspect to unlock her iPhone.
There, authorities obtained a search warrant compelling the girlfriend of an alleged Armenian gang member to press her finger against an iPhone that had been seized from a Glendale home. The phone contained Apple’s fingerprint identification system for unlocking, and prosecutors wanted access to the data inside it.
The woman, 29-year-old Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan, from L.A. had a string of criminal convictions, and had pleaded no contest to a felony count of identity theft.
Bkhchadzhyan was sentenced on that case on February 25. Around 45 minutes following the sentencing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Rosenberg signed a warrant authorizing law enforcement officials to compel the defendant to press her finger on the phone.
The case marks one of the few times law enforcement has demanded a suspect unlock their device via a fingerprint, but experts expect to see a growing number of such cases, as law enforcement’s battle against encrypted devices becomes a larger piece of their work.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police can search phones with a valid warrant, and can compel a suspect to provide physical evidence, such as fingerprints, without a judge’s order, some legal experts say there should be different rules governing the use of a fingerprint to unlock a digital device.
“It isn’t about fingerprints and the biometric readers,” said Susan Brenner, a law professor at the University of Dayton who studies the nexus of digital technology and criminal law, but rather, “the contents of that phone, much of which will be about her, and a lot of that could be incriminating.”
Brenner continued, saying the act of forcing a person to unlock their device by pressing their finger against it breaches the 5th Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
“By showing you opened the phone, you showed that you have control over it,” Brenner said. “It’s the same as if she went home and pulled out paper documents — she’s produced it.”
On the other side of the legal fence, Albert Gidari, the director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said such an action might not violate the 5th Amendment.
“Unlike disclosing passcodes, you are not compelled to speak or say what’s ‘in your mind’ to law enforcement,” Gidari said. “‘Put your finger here’ is not testimonial or self-incriminating.”
The argument over compelling a suspect to unlock their device via their fingerprint is likely to be one that will be waged in a number of court battles in the future.