Judge rules against forced fingerprinting
Thu 23 Feb 2017
A federal judge in Chicago has ruled against a government request which would require forced fingerprinting of private citizens in order to open a secure, personal phone or tablet.
In the ruling, the judge stated that while fingerprints in and of themselves are not protected, the government’s method of obtaining the fingerprints would violate the Fourth and Fifth amendments.
The government’s request was given as part of a search warrant related to a child pornography ring. The court ruled that the government could seize devices, but that it could not compel people physically present at the time of seizure to provide their fingerprints “onto the Touch ID sensor of any Apple iPhone, iPad, or other Apple brand device in order to gain access to the contents of any such device.”
The ruling was based on three separate arguments. The first was that the boilerplate language used in the request was dated, and did not, for example, address vulnerabilities associated with wireless services. While this oversight would not eliminate probable cause in the investigation, it does undermine the ‘extraordinary authority’ the government sought to compel individuals to provide their fingerprints to authorities.
The judge also noted that there was no detailed information on the residents of the building that would tie them to criminal activity of any sort. While physical devices could be collected in a general sweep, fingerprints were outside the bounds of that type of investigation.
Second, the court said that the context in which the fingerprints were intended to be gathered may violate the Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights of the building residents and their visitors, all of whom would have been compelled to provide their fingerprints to open their secure devices.
Finally, the court noted that historically the Fifth Amendment, which protects against self-incrimination does not allow a person to circumvent the fingerprinting process. However, the relevant ruling is from the 1970s and does not cover the use of fingerprints to “access a database of someone’s most private information.”
Considering the role of phone usage in the average person’s everyday life raises concerns that the Fifth Amendment would be violated by forced fingerprinting for the purposes of unlocking a mobile device.