Phone Fingerprint Lock Sparks New Legal Dispute

John Lister's picture

A federal court has ordered a woman to use her finger to unlock her iPhone. It's the latest legal tussle in the ongoing debate pitting security and law enforcement against constitutional rights.

The case involved a Los Angeles woman who had been arrested for identity theft. The FBI wanted to access the contents of her phone, which was protected by a fingerprint lock.

Officials have not publicly revealed exactly why they wanted to access the data, or whether it directly related to the identity theft charges. Court documents show she was the girlfriend of a known member of a major LA criminal gang.

Around 45 minutes after the woman's arrest, a judge signed a warrant to compel her to put her finger on the phone. The woman did so, though police have not revealed whether she did so voluntarily or was physically made to do so. She went on to plead no contest to the identity theft charge.

Fifth Amendment Issues Arise

Although the phone has now been unlocked in this case, civil rights groups and legal experts are split over the constitutionality of the order. Unlike many cases involving locked phones, the issue at debate here is not the fourth amendment's rules on government searches. Instead, critics of the order say it breached the fifth amendment's rule that a person cannot be forced to incriminate themselves.

It appears the judge concluded the order was legal because it effectively combined two separate legal rulings by the Supreme Court in past cases: that searching a phone is legal with an appropriate warrant, and that the police have the right to order a suspect to provide fingerprints without needing a warrant. (Source:

Rival Analogies Fuel Debate

Opponents believe that not only is it unclear that these two rulings can combine in such a way, but that from a legal perspective, the woman unlocking the phone with her finger acted as proof that she owned it and was legally responsible for the data inside, something which could incriminate her. (Source:

Much of the disagreement centers on which analogy works better for this situation: should it be likened to a suspect being forced by a search warrant to give police access to their home (which is legally allowed) or to a suspect being forced to provide a passcode to unlock a phone (which is not legally allowed). Put another way, the divide is whether a suspect unlocking their phone with a fingerprint is primarily a physical action or a case of providing information.

What's Your Opinion?

Was the judge correct to make this order? Should the law be updated to specifically address fingerprint locks and other biometric security? Legally speaking, do you consider a fingerprint lock more like a physical lock or a computer password?

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Dennis Faas's picture

The one thing I'm on the fence about is whether the judge used the constitution lawfully in order to obtain a fingerprint for the phone - especially with respect to the line which reads "the police have the right to order a suspect to provide fingerprints without needing a warrant".

I do agree that if a judge believes there is reasonable grounds to search a home, then searching a phone should not be much different. Similarly, if there was nothing on the phone to incriminate the woman, handing it over should not have been an issue. After all, if the glove don't fit ...

dan400man's picture

> if there was nothing on the phone to incriminate the woman, handing it over should not have been an issue.

I used to think like this, but not anymore. This country is turning into a police state faster than you can say "oh, sh*t".

Beyond that, I don't have the knowledge or experience to know whether this was a constitutionally legitimate warrant. This might be another case of technology advancing faster than the law.

sssteve72_3253's picture

Maybe it is turning into a police state because the criminals are being allowed to run rampant.

Navy vet's picture

"she was the boyfriend of a known member of a major LA criminal gang." She was?

beach.boui's picture

Well, that's the bigger story. It was Katlin Jenner. LOL!

DavidInMississippi's picture

Point 1: It is legal for law enforcement to obtain a person's fingerprint - either by printing them on being detained, or by harvesting them from some place the person has left them publicly. (The same for their DNA, except they need a warrant for obtaining it on detention.)

Point 2: The technology exists to fairly easily unlock an iPhone (and, I assume any other device secured by fingerprint biometric security) by using a fingerprint that's not yours. See the artice and video at for an illustration of this.

I am not aware of any legislation prohibiting the use of this technology.

Why then, don't the law enforcement/investigative departments use this technology to unlock any suspect's iPhone?

It is not self-incrimination, any more than matching an individual's fingerprint to one found on a murder weapon is self-incrimination.

Just a thought to consider.

rchamer's picture

I find it quite acceptable to require submitting to being fingerprinted. This is a valuable tool to see if there are any outstanding crimes where latent prints had been collected, and to use as verification and tracking of identity.

I find it quite unacceptable for them to require your fingerprints to open a smartphone to use against you in an investigation, which is very much a violation of your right to not self incriminate. These smartphones today are used for far more than just phone calls and texting, and can include a lot of personal information that should not necessarily be exposed to law enforcement without a proper, and consistent methodology of court orders and warrants.

Two different uses for fingerprints, two different opinions one their accepted uses.

matt_2058's picture

I agree with rchamer on this one. Providing fingerprints to identify oneself is already on the books. But providing fingerprints to UNLOCK something is different. I believe the judge misinterpreted the law on this one.

Sorry, but the fingerprint-on-the-gun analogy doesn't fly. Fingerprints are used to ID the suspect. To correlate that with the above case, would be to get fingerprints from the suspect and connect those already on the phone. Unlocking the phone is not the same.

pctyson's picture

I saw a news piece on one of the major networks concerning the "lack of security" in using fingerprints to unlock devices. The security firm that was disputing the infallibility of using fingerprint scans to gain access to devices demonstrated how you could take a picture of someone waving (palm toward the camera) and, if the picture was of sufficient resolution, you can zoom in on the fingers and make a "fake" fingerprint that could be pressed on the screen of the device. This would then give you access to that device. They demonstrated the concept in action and it worked. Can not remember all of the details but I found it very interesting.