Why your iPhone-unlocking fingerprint is susceptible to law enforcement search warrants

A US judge is forcing a woman to unlock an iPhone with her fingerprints, but does this violate the Constitution?

Should you be able to plead the Fifth when a judge forces you to use your fingerprints to unlock an iPhone?

That’s the latest ongoing debate in a Los Angeles courtroom after a judge compelled a woman in custody to use Touch ID to unlock an iPhone. Legal experts are arguing that this goes against the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination because the authorities would then have access to potentially-incriminating personal data stored on the device.

The debate started after authorities obtained a search warrant for Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan, the girlfriend of a suspected Armenian gang member, to use her fingerprints to unlock an iPhone seized from a home in Glendale, California. The iPhone in question was enabled with Touch ID sensor technology.

In February, Bkhchadzhyan was sentenced to a felony count of identify theft. According to court documents, it only took 45 minutes after Bkhchadzhyan was taken into custody for U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Rosenberg to order her to press her fingerprints on the iPhone. Bkhchadzhyan’s fingerprints were collected by an FBI agent that same day.

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that authorities can obtain a search warrant for mobile phones and can force people in custody to hand over physical evidence including fingerprints without a judge order, legal experts say this case is different. Their argument is that forcing a person to use their fingerprints to unlock an iPhone could be a form of self-incrimination, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

According to Susan Brenner, a law professor at the University of Dayton, this is on par with unlawfully forcing someone to testify incriminating testimony. By unlocking the iPhone with her fingerprints, Bkhchadzhyan would be authenticating the data on the phone and become associated with it.

“By showing you opened the phone, you showed that you have control over it,” Brenner told the LA Times. “It’s the same as if she went home and pulled out paper documents—she’s produced it.”

But not every legal expert believes that fingerprints fall under the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. In fact, Touch ID may be a legal loophole to forcing someone to reveal their passcode.

“Unlike disclosing passcodes, you are not compelled to speak or say what’s ‘in your mind’ to law enforcement,” said Albert Gidari, the director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “‘Put your finger here’ is not testimonial or self-incriminating.”

Why this matters: The issue boils down to the earlier ruling that fingerprints are “physical evidence,” like a key. The legal system does not require a search warrant for physical evidence. However, producing an iPhone passcode is considered knowledge stored in one’s mind, so forcing someone to disclose the passcode is protected under the Fifth Amendment.

It gets murky, however, with fingerprint sensors that unlock mobile phones. For Touch ID to be able to unlock an iPhone, a person has to physically press down on the device. A fingerprint scan won’t do. So it’s more involved than just handing over a key. It’s forcing someone to perform an action with a key only they can use.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags fingerprintbiosecurity

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Oscar Raymundo

Macworld.com
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?