A California Magistrate Judge has ruled that federal authorities cannot force people to unlock their devices using their fingerprints, faces, or irises.
A California judge has ruled that American cops can’t force people to unlock a mobile phone with their face or finger. The ruling goes further to protect people’s private lives from government searches than any before and is being hailed as a potentially landmark decision.
Previously, U.S. judges had ruled that police were allowed to force unlock devices like Apple’s iPhone with biometrics, such as fingerprints, faces or irises. That was despite the fact feds weren’t permitted to force a suspect to divulge a passcode. But according to a ruling uncovered by Forbes, all logins are equal.
The ruling from Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore is part of a nine-page order denying a search warrant for an investigation looking into a Facebook extortion crime. Although the judge said investigators had established probable cause for the warrant, but called their request to unlock any phone found on the premises using biometrics “overbroad.” Since the request wasn’t limited to a particular person, the feds could have required everyone on the premises to unlock their devices.
Westmore wrote in her ruling:
“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 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.”
The judge noted that “technology is outpacing the law” and that the government has other means to solve the case. In this particular case, investigators could obtain Messenger communications with Facebook itself, using a a proper warrant under the Stored Communications Act.
Forbes reports that Facebook has in the past been willing to hand over messages to authorities form numerous previous cases, so there was no reason that investigators couldn’t take that route to obtain the information.