One Judge in Virginia Says Police Can Force You to Use Your Fingerprint to Unlock Your Phone

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4-Step Computer Security Upgrade

Learn to encrypt your files, secure your computer when using public Wi-Fi, enable two-factor authentication, and use good passwords.

Okay, fine, I’ll write about this:

A Virginia Circuit Court judge ruled Tuesday that police officers cannot force criminal suspects to divulge cellphone passwords, but they can force them to unlock the phone with a fingerprint scanner.

There is a strong argument to be made that fingerprints are usernames, not passwords. And some lawyers warned that this would happen back when Apple first launched Touch ID.

But let’s stop and be real for a minute: one circuit-court judge’s ruling in Virginia does not mean much unless you have a case before that particular judge. The most we can say is that this ruling places the security of fingerprints in doubt where the police are concerned.

What is more important is that the security of fingerprint unlocking was already in doubt. Your fingerprint is way easier for someone to get ahold of than the contents of your brain. And pretty much anyone can use stuff from an office supply store to unlock your phone. Even the police, assuming they don’t just decide to hold your finger up to your phone and worry about the constitutionality later.

So if you really want to secure your phone, don’t use your fingerprint to unlock it, and turn on the option to erase the data on your phone after 10 failed unlock attempts.

Update: This may all be moot. Given how long the phone has been sitting, it has undoubtedly shut down on its own if police did not do it themselves. “[The defendant’s lawyer] believes police still may be unable to unlock the phone because it should require a password, in addition to a fingerprint, once it has been shut off.”

Featured image: “Fingerprint” from Shutterstock.

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  • James Greenwood

    The problem with this is that the I-Phone doesn’t actually scan the finger print in the way that a police officer might take a fingerprint. The scan actually looks at the sub-epidermal layers. http://support.apple.com/en-us/HT5949 This renders the scan more like using an infrared camera to peer into a house than a telescope to look at the front porch.

    This technical detail makes the decision slightly more troubling than it first appears.