Police Use Suspect's Face to Unlock Phone

John Lister's picture

Police have used a suspect's face to unlock a phone for what appears to be the first time. It didn't go quite as planned and is another step in the law adapting to technology.

The man in question was suspected of receiving and possessing indecent images of children. Police raided his house with a search warrant and discovered he had a phone which was locked.

Historically such cases have proven a grey area when it comes to privacy laws and the rights of police. For example, while law enforcement agencies have argued that, as long as they have a court order, accessing a phone or computer is a lawful search and doesn't violate the fourth amendment.

In contrast, defense lawyers have argued that forcing somebody to hand over a password means asking them to provide information that could incriminate them, which in turn breaches the fifth amendment.

Fourth And Fifth Amendments At Stake

The situation gets even muddier with biometric security features.

Defense lawyers have argued that providing a fingerprint to unlock a phone comes under the fifth amendment in the same manner as a password. However, courts have ruled that it's established as legal to demand a suspect provide fingerprints for identification purposes, in turn making it legal to use that fingerprint as an unlock.

In the new case, police showed the suspect the search warrant and asked him to use his face to unlock the phone, which he did. They then got a court to extend the original search warrant to cover the contents of the phone. (Source: documentcloud.org)

Passcode Lock Still Relevant

Technology still threw up some limitations for the police, however. The phone - an iPhone X - had a setting that meant if it was locked for one hour, it couldn't be hooked up to a computer to transfer data without a passcode being typed in. (Source: thenextweb.com)

Because the police couldn't force the suspect to provide that passcode, they were unable to use a computer to automate and speed up the process of examining the data stored on the phone. Instead they had to keep it unlocked as long as possible and manually examine it. That was a much slower process, which required the police to take photos of the screen.

The suspect's lawyer says police weren't able to access any incriminating information on the phone. However, the suspect has been charged based on evidence gathered from other devices.

What's Your Opinion?

Should a Face ID be treated in the same way as a fingerprint when it comes to search laws? Should suspects be forced to unlock a phone biometrically or should this be protected in the same way as keeping a password secret? Should laws and even the constitution be updated more often to take account of evolving technology?

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