Securing a smartphone with a fingerprint is possibly the best way to secure your cellphone. Opening cellphones with PIN codes is too slow, while using a fingerprint to unlock the tablets and smartphones and, in some cases, PCs, is seen as a perfect combination of ease-of-use and security. However, unfortunately, now the use of fingerprint tech may leave users vulnerable to being compelled to unlock their cellphones for the government.

Fingerprint Feds
Photo by Alexas_Fotos (Pixabay)

Feds can order to provide fingerprint to unlock phone

Users cannot be compelled by the Feds to enter their passcodes or PIN to unlock their devices currently. U.S. citizens are protected under the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable seizures and searches. But just being in the wrong house at the wrong time can now compel every person inside the house to unlock their phones by providing their fingerprints, according to one group of federal prosecutors. It sounds scary, very scary indeed.

A Virginia Circuit Court ruled in 2014 that even though suspects cannot be compelled to provide phone passcodes, biometric data like fingerprints does not have the same constitutional protection, reports Gizmodo. Several law enforcement agencies have attempted to compel suspects to unlock their handsets with their fingers since then. However, none have cited the authority discovered in a Justice Department memorandum which was recently revealed by Forbes.

Earlier this year, federal prosecutors in California remonstrated in the court document that even though the government does not know the identity of every fingerprint or every digital device (or indeed, every other piece of evidence) that it will find in the search, a warrant for a mass finger-unlocking was constitutionally sound because it has demonstrated that evidence could exist at the search location.

Audacious abuse of power

Marina Medvin, a criminal defense lawyer, does not agree. Medvin told Forbes they want the ability to get a warrant on the assumption that they will get more information after they have a warrant.

“This would be an unbelievably audacious abuse of power if it were permitted.”

Other documents related to the case were, unfortunately, not available publicly, so it is uncertain whether the search was actually executed or not. Medvin still believes that the memorandum is setting a quite troubling precedent of using an older case law in respect to the collection of fingerprint evidence to request full access to the “amazing amount of information” found on a phone.

Medvin said that one needs to have a reasonable basis before they start the search.

“If this kind of thing became law then there would be nothing to prevent… a search of every phone at a certain location.”

According to Forbes, one of the first-known warrants asking a user to unlock an iPhone using a fingerprint was revealed earlier this year. It was filed by Los Angeles police in February.

Meanwhile, it would be a good idea to switch to the kind of numerical code that the Feds cannot compel you to give up, says Gizmodo.