Authorities Can’t Force Suspects to Unlock Phones with Biometrics, Rules California Court

A California court has ruled that government agencies can’t compel suspects to unlock their smart devices with biometric authentication because it violates the self-incrimination clause in the Fifth Amendment, writes Forbes. This applies even if a warrant has been granted to search the person’s residence.

The decision was made after law
enforcement filed for a search warrant
while investigating two
suspects in Oakland, California, allegedly involved in a Facebook extortion
case. The men were accused of using Facebook Messenger to harass and threaten
another man with publishing a humiliating video online.

While searching the suspects’
house, federal authorities wanted to also investigate the contents of all
mobile devices on premises but, to be unlocked, the individuals would have to use
biometric features such as fingerprint of facial recognition to unlock them. Their
warrant request was denied.

“The Government cannot be
permitted to search and seize a mobile phone or other device that is on a
non-suspect’s person simply because they are present during an otherwise lawful
search,” reads the ruling.

Courts in the US earlier ruled
that “a passcode cannot be compelled under the Fifth Amendment, because the act
of communicating the passcode is testimonial,” but didn’t include biometrics.
Judge Kandis Westmore now ruled that biometric features are innovative
passcodes and should benefit from the same protection, so police can no longer force
suspects to unlock their devices.

“While the judge agreed that
investigators had shown probable cause to search the property, they didn’t have
the right to open all devices inside by forcing unlocks with biometric
features,” says Forbes.

“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 judge wrote.

“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.”

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