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Judge rules biometrics are now protected the same as passwords

If you purposely use a PIN or password to unlock your phone or computer because law enforcement could compel you to unlock biometric locks, now is a good time to rejoice. A judge ruled last week that biometric security is protected under the Fifth Amendment just like passwords.

The original provision forced both Apple and Google to add password or PIN unlocks to Android MacOS and iOS. Android introduced a controversial random PIN login reminder as part of Oreo to make sure ‘you are you’ and work around this ability for law enforcement to compel you to unlock biometric security.

That is now a thing of the past.

The ruling

The ruling was handed down by a judge from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California during a warrant request. The request, filed in Oakland wanted to seize mobile devices as part of a larger operation and access using biometrics. Judge Westmore ruled the request was too broad and that it was nowhere near specific enough.

The warrant was to enable raids on persons of interest in a Facebook extortion case. The police had a good idea of who was behind the crimes and wanted to open up any devices the suspects owned, including any that were locked with biometrics.

Previously, warrants had enabled this type of unlocking without any further questions. A suspect giving a password is regarded as doing so willingly, which is offering testimony. Biometrics were not regarded as testimony so were previously not included under Fifth Amendment protections so were regarded as fair game. That changes now.

This time, the judge said enough was enough. His ruling says that the government does not have the right to force a suspect to incriminate themselves, including compelling them to unlock devices using fingerprint, iris or face.

The judge wrote that fingerprints and face scans were not the same as “physical evidence” when considered in a context where those body features would be used to unlock a phone.

A quote:

“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.” (Source)

Dave’s Computers has nothing against law enforcement or their need to access devices and the data stored on them to help investigations. However, we have always wondered why one version of security mean more than another. It confused people and was not an ideal situation. Now the playing field has been equalized and we all know where we stand.