Massachusetts Judge Says ATF Can Apply A Suspect's Fingerprints To Unlock An IPhone
from the five-finger-Fifth-Amendment-discount dept
It looks like a passcode still beats a fingerprint when it comes to securing your info. Maybe not from criminals, but definitely from the government. Lisa Vaas of Naked Security reports the ATF has received permission from a federal judge to apply a suspect’s fingerprints to a phone to unlock it.
[T]he document, issued on 18 April, Massachusetts federal district judge Judith Dein gave agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) the right to press a suspect’s fingers on any iPhone found in his apartment in Cambridge that law enforcement believes that he’s used, in order to unlock the devices with iPhone Touch ID.
The warrant [PDF] authorizes ATF agents to “press the fingers (including the thumbs)” of suspect Robert Brito-Pina to the “Touch ID sensor of any Apple cellular phone” recovered during the search. Brito-Pina is suspected of buying and selling weapons — neither of which are permissible given his felon status. The ATF apparently believes evidence of this will be found on Pina’s iPhone.
There doesn’t appear to be any limit on how many fingers the ATF can use to unlock the phone. The warrant says only that officers will decide which fingers to apply. Presumably, that means all of them (including thumbs), since there’s no language limiting officers to a certain number of finger applications. The only thing preventing every finger from being applied during the search is the iPhone itself, which will require a passcode after five wrong fingerprint applications.
The phone’s nexus is established pretty thoroughly in the warrant application, which much of the sting operation using an arrestee-turned-informant being carried out via text messages. The government moved to unseal the warrant five days after applying for it, suggesting it has already executed this warrant.
The weird thing about the warrant application, which thoroughly details the sting operation and the ATF’s surveillance of the suspect, is it appears the swearing agent isn’t actually sure Pina owns an iPhone.
Given the popularity of Apple brand devices, I believe it is likely that I will find Apple brand devices such as an Apple iPhone at the Target Location.
And, despite authorizing the agents to only use Pina’s finger to unlock any recovered iPhones, the warrant still contains boilerplate stating agents may demand fingerprint applications from anyone at the searched residence.
In some cases, it may not be possible to know with certainty who is the user of a given device, such as if the device is found in a common area of a premises without any identifying information on the exterior of the device. Thus, it will likely be necessary for law enforcement to have the ability to require any occupant of the Target Location to press their finger(s) against the Touch ID sensor of the locked Apple device(s) found during the search of the Subject Premises in order to attempt to identify the device’s user(s) and unlock the device(s) via Touch ID.
This case likely won’t budge the needle on the Fifth Amendment question. At least, not yet. If Pina wants the evidence gleaned from the iPhone suppressed (assuming there is an iPhone), there may be further discussion of this crucial issue in the future. Most judicial decisions on the use of biometrics to unlock devices have sided with government, asserting that faces and fingerprints are “non-testimonial,” even if they’re the gateway to plenty of evidence that will be used against the defendant. But there have been a few judges who’ve taken contrary stances, so the issue is far from settled.