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This Could Be a Big Ruling on Your Phone Privacy

Judge says cops can't force people to unlock them with fingerprints, face scans
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 15, 2019 5:03 AM CST
In this file photo, an Apple employee, right, instructs a journalist on the use of the fingerprint scanner technology on an iPhone.   (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

(Newser) – It could be a big decision in the new and legally murky realm of privacy and biometrics: A federal judge in California has ruled that police cannot force people to unlock their phones using fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans. The ruling was first spotted by Thomas Brewster of Forbes, who sees it as a possible landmark ruling. The case is out of Oakland, where federal authorities asked permission not only to search a property as part of an online extortion case but to confiscate the phones of anyone there and make people unlock them, through biometrics if necessary. Too much, ruled judge Kandis Westmore of the US District Court for the Northern District of California. She said the request "runs afoul of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments," which protect people from improper searches and self-incrimination, per Ars Technica.

"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," wrote Kandis. In regard to biometrics, she cited a previous ruling that police could not compel people to turn over their passwords. “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,” she wrote. That may seem like an "obvious" conclusion, per Gizmodo, but it's actually "a remarkable interpretation of how biometric data can be viewed," writes Rhett Jones. If the ruling withstands expected challenges, it could cement new privacy protections into law. (What about using 3D-printed fingers to unlock phones?)

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