WHOOP! WHOOP! That's the sound of the police... failing to force you to unlock your phone with your grinning mug or grubby finger, all thanks to the ruling of a Californian judge.
Such a rule might only apply to the US law enforcement, but it's still good to know, especially if you're, say, an iPhone XS-toting ne'er-do-well.
The federal judge in the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled explicitly that the rozzers can't compel suspects to unlock a device using biometric data, such as iris scans or face identification. Such a move, the judge ruled, could be in violation of the US Fifth Amendment, which grants Yanks the right to protection against self-incrimination even if there's probable cause to seize a device as part of a lawful search made against a suspect.
"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," explained Judge Kandis Westmore in her written opinion on the matter.
It's worth noting that this was a decision by a US magistrate judge pertaining to a case around someone trying to extort money out of a person they have an "embarrassing" video of and threatened to post on Facebook, and as such the ruling could be challenged and overturned by a district court judge.
The crux of the issue and it's place in the court was due to the need to look at how new tech to unlock phones measures up legally speaking to password unlocking.
Handing over a password to your own phone in the US can be seen as making a testimony against yourself, which US citizens are protected against thanks to the Fifth Amendment.
But before the judge's ruling, forcing people to unlock their phone with biometric data wasn't considered to be a testimonial, as they won't have willingly given up their password.
However, as biometric data can be used to unlock a device with all manner of personal data, Judge Westmore came to the conclusion that tech was advancing at a pace that the law wasn't keeping up with and that unlocking a phone through biometrics is akin to blabbing a password and is, therefore, a testimonial.
"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," explained Westmore.
It's an interesting conclusion and one we suspect US law enforcement isn't going to be too chuffed with, and we wouldn't be surprised to see more court battles crop up over opening access to phones in the near-future. But probably best for the US authorities to avoid Apple, as Cupertino doesn't seem to budge an inch when it comes to keeping its iPhones locked down. µ
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