Police Can’t Force People To Unlock Their Phones With Face Or Fingerprint Scans, US Judge Rules

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Law enforcement officials are legally barred from forcing people to unlock their smartphones — or other smart devices — using their faces, fingerprints, or via retina scan, a Californian judge has recently ruled.

As reported by Engadget— via Forbes a nine-page order has recently been discovered, one which details an investigation in which law enforcement was looking into an extortion crime through the use of Facebook.

It seems that, although the presiding judge did acknowledge that investigators had enough evidence to establish probable cause for a warrant, their requests to unlock smartphones through the use of biometric scans had gone too far. The request from law enforcement did not limit their search to any one particular smart device or person — instead, investigators would have been able to compel everyone in the building to unlock their devices.

This ruling was handed down by Kandis A. Westmore, who is currently serving as a U.S. Magistrate Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Westmore obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of California Berkeley in 1989, and received her Juris Doctor from the University of San Francisco School of Law. She was appointed as a Magistrate Judge back in 2012.

Westmore made note that police and other law enforcement officials don’t have the power to compel people to unlock their phones, even if a warrant has been served. This puts biometric unlocking on the same level as passwords and passcodes — which have to be willingly relinquished, as covered by the Fifth Amendment — to protect oneself against self-incrimination.

“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,” Westmore detailed in her ruling.

Still, this ruling can be overturned, though. Given the constant back-and-forth between law enforcement demands and advancements in technology, the Supreme Court may have to weigh in on the matter at some point in time.

Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling, one which banned law enforcement personnel from tracking a person using their cellphone records and GPS data without prior permission from a judge, per reporting by the Inquisitr.