Virginia judge rules police can order a suspect unlock their phone via fingerprint (but not passcode)


Galaxy S5 Fingerprint Reader

On Thurdsday, a Virginia Circuit Court judge made a fairly groundbreaking and eye opening ruling involving the police asking someone to unlock their secured smartphone. According to the judge, demanding a suspect to provide the passcode to unlock their phone would be unconstitutional, while a suspect providing their fingerprint to unlock their phone would be fair game.

For those living under a rock, iPhone users since the iPhone 5s have been able to secure their smartphones using a fingerprint, a feature Apple calls TouchID. This was seen as a more convenient, but still plenty secure method of locking a smartphone to keep one’s data secure. If you’re a suspect detained police in Virginia, that’s not the case.

This relates back to the case of a man who allegedly strangled his girlfriend and police believe, may have recorded the act with this smartphone. Because his phone was locked with a passcode (and not a fingerprint), the defendant’s attorney argued that it was protected by the Fifth Amendment given that it would require a suspect to divulge knowledge. This is not in the same category as a person’s identity, which includes DNA, handwriting, or — you guessed it — fingerprints, all of which are within the bounds of the law.

While it would be easy to scoff at iPhone (or even Samsung) users who use fingerprint locking on their devices, keep in mind that Apple has a safeguard for anyone who hasn’t unlocked their phone in 48 hours which requires a secondary passcode be entered in the event that TouchID is enabled. That still gives police plenty of time after a suspect has been apprehended to require a fingerprint for unlocking.

How do you guys feel about the judge’s ruling? If you have a Samsung device, will any of you start using passcodes over the fingerprint scanner to secure your phone? Keep in mind, the NSA is watching this post. We kid…. (we think).

[Ars Technica]


Chris Chavez
I've been obsessed with consumer technology for about as long as I can remember, be it video games, photography, or mobile devices. If you can plug it in, I have to own it. Preparing for the day when Android finally becomes self-aware and I get to welcome our new robot overlords.

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  1. Flawed reasoning at the very least since it is your personal property judges once again chipping away at our constitutional rights smh

    1. Under the 4th Admendment you can refuse unless you provide probable cause. Make sure you are given the reason to why your person and/or property is being searched. Hell record it and you will be alright.

    2. Hate to break it to everyone but if they want to get into your phone they will. In many places refusing to have someone turn your property and residence into chaos during a search on suspicion or circumstantial evidence will result in it happening anyway. It’s like dropping the soap in prison. You might as well bend over and take it.

    3. How I think the founding fathers would feel about the application of the amendments in modern times: http://i.imgur.com/KZ9JdMV.jpg

      1. I’m assuming you know that the first 10 amendments aren’t an afterthought… Or are you just trolling?

        1. I never said that they were an afterthought. I’m saying that they’re abused by opportunistic fools and idiots who claim to be Americans, i.e. I need an assault rifle because I want one and I don’t care how dangerous or unnecessary it is for a member of the public to be able to have one and get it. Also, the constitution says I can have guns, so there! Also, I have to protect myself from everyone else, including the government. If you think any of these arguments are valid then there are some serious social problems in a country that allows things like this.

          Btw, do you consider it your solemn duty to attempt to shoot down anyone who points out flaws in a country? Passive aggressive attacks on those who point them out won’t change the fact that they exist.

          1. “I never said that they were an afterthought. I’m saying that they’re abused by opportunistic fools and idiots who claim to be Americans”

            So if you express your second amendment rights, you are un American? Wow, that’s brilliant.

            “Also, I have to protect myself from everyone else, including the government.”

            Precisely! Also, please define what an “assault weapon” is.

            “If you think any of these arguments are valid then there are some serious social problems in a country that allows things like this.”

            If you think they aren’t valid, you are a very diluted and brainwashed individual. The second amendment isn’t flawed; your understanding of it is.

          2. There is definitely something wrong with this country. You should move out asap to avoid these right wing nuts. Go to a more utopian place like Cuba. Best of luck on your journeys. Godspeed. (Sorry for saying God).

          3. I don’t know what I find more disappointing: your sarcasm or the fact that you think I’d like a country that’s in the condition Cuba is in. Quite a few countries in western and northern Europe (not to mention Canada) have far fewer social and economic problems than the US does. Remember that next time you feel like breaking out the ‘Murrica rules attitude. I don’t live there and I can’t say that makes me very sad.

            Also what’s with the “sorry for saying God” thing?

          4. Ok….get your tin foil hats ready. But really, give this thought. We are walking a thin line with the Russians. We owe China 5 times what this country is worth, and god knows how many countries are incredibly pissed at all things american for invading their lands, killing their leaders, planting leaders America can control, and if we can’t control them then we bomb the daylight out of them. It’s a surprise that we don’t have numerous countries knocking at our shores and doors trying to kill us all. And then I thought of something. In sheer manpower those countries could trample our military easily. But when the people are armed with comparable gear that the military has access to…. That changes things. Best the Navy…. Meh…… Best the army…. Meh……. Best the Marines….. Meh…..

            Try a hostile takeover in the South and survive and I’ll say you deserve to overthrow America.

            An armed public is one that cannot be forced into subjugation.

          5. And that’s why they push to take ppls guns. A population that can defend itself against tyranny is bad for government…..

          6. I can’t even begin to express my sympathy for any one who thinks that the situation you described is desirable in any way, shape or form.

            Saving the world by destroying people’s lives in countries where they already have so little is not saving anyone out anything.

  2. good only two or tree phones have fingers print scanner SG/N and Iphones 5s/6
    So meh

    1. You mean the biggest selling smartphones accounting for the majority of global smartphone market share? xD

  3. +1 for smart app lock

    1. I don’t know about that. If you use NFC or Bluetooth to unlock, that’s like a physical key and it can be used without “knowledge.” Smart Lock seems just as vulnerable as unlocking with a fingerprint.

  4. It’s a crap ruling. Entering your fingerprint is just like being forced to put in a PIN. That being said, this means I’d never have biometrics as my unlock as long as this ruling stands. I hope that the SCOTUS overturns this.

    1. It only applies to crimes occurring in Virginia. The case didn’t go to a higher court. Yet.

      1. I have friends in Virginia… And I don’t like the precedent.

    2. Actually, it’s not the same as being forced to enter a PIN. The PIN is knowledge, the fingerprint is not. When it comes to the Fifth Amendment, there is a distinct difference between the two.

      1. 5th? I’m talking about the 4th. You want to get in to someone’s stuff? Get a warrant, or show probable cause.

        1. Correct. The 4th has to do with search and seizure. And I think we are beyond that when talking about this ruling.

          This ruling assumes that the warrant has already been issued and the 4th Amendment concern is already settled.

          We are now to the part where the police are trying to execute the warrant and look at the data that is on the phone.

          The phone is locked… only the owner of the phone can unlock it. Now… can the police (or court) compel the owner of the phone to unlock it?

          If it is locked with a fingerprint.. yes.
          If it is locked with a pin or password (the difference being that the PIN or password is KNOWLEDGE that the defendant possesses)… no.

          It is the 5th Amendment that is at play here. by providing the PIN/password are you providing them with information that can be used to incriminate you? That is what the 5th Amendment (in part) protects you from.

          1. I stand corrected. I missed that the warrant was issued. Most of the articles I’ve read glossed over that little snippet.

          2. No worries. There are a lot of people reading about this and not realizing that it’s not a 4A issue.

            I’m surprised at the number of people that think this is a bad ruling.

          3. It just reinforces the fact that biometrics aren’t the future of security.

          4. A fingerprint is better used as a username than a password.

          5. Ooh! I like that idea!

  5. I’d rather go to jail than unlock my phone; there’s obvious crossover here but I can’t see how a fingerprint is knowledge, but it would be the same thing as your passcode.

    1. You could say you dont know it, what are they going to do?

      1. They can turn the screen on and notice the phone indicates no way to unlock it without your fingerprint.

  6. Sucks to be an Iphone user. The big selling points on the last two iphones are about useless.

  7. I assume everyone posting here is a potential criminal haha.

  8. While I this is disappointing WRT rights, I actually think this decision is correct in its comparison of a fingerprint to a password. Fingerprints are appropriate for identification, not authorization. Fingerprints are more appropriately analogous to a username. Although convenient, we shouldn’t be using fingerprints to unlock devices.

  9. Fingerprints may indeed be useful for identification, but not exclusively. I see no difference between providing info or providing access to info. I can provide a key to my front door, but I don’t have to if they don’t have a warrant.

  10. This is a pretty chilling decision. Personally I think it’s foolish to trust one’s fingerprint with any corporation, so it won’t affect me, but I do feel this ruling is an intrusion. I wonder if this will go up to a higher court, and if so, what sort of precedent it will set for other types of smartphone searches?

    Incidentally, what kind of dumbass killer records himself killing someone? (I doubt he was a member of ISIS)

  11. I don’t see it I mean they can have my fingerprint but they’ll need my finger to unlock the device. I shouldn’t be forced to use my finger to unlock a device. And following this ruling when you’re having a background check done (for example to work with a sensitive material) you give your fingerprints as a part of the identification. During that process they can then ask you unlock your phone just because it’s a fingerprint but not a passcode.

  12. As various security experts have noted, fingerprints are usernames, not passwords. You can change a password. You can’t change your identity or fingerprints.

    That said, this is still an asinine ruling. I encourage the defendant to appeal. Or I would if I didn’t think our brain-dead SCOTUS would uphold it. :-(

  13. That ruling does not make any sense, that judge needs to be disbarred

    1. It actually makes perfect sense. And, not only does it make sense, but it’s a great ruling. Some courts in other districts have ruled that defendants must provide passwords to law enforcement. Virginia is ruling correctly here.

  14. Our rights are being taken away NOT by the President of the United States, but by SCOTUS and the crazy right wing judges. But hey vote for them you deserve it.

    1. I guess the left wing judges who trample over freedom of speech, election results and gun rights aren’t crazy right?

  15. This shouldn’t have even been something that needed to be questioned. Your PIN/password is knowledge that you possess and the Fifth Amendment protects you from being required to divulge knowledge that can be used against you.

    Good ruling.

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