Judge says police can’t force room of people to unlock an iPhone with their fingerprints

Judge says police can’t force room of people to unlock an iPhone with their fingerprints
© Getty

A federal judge in Illinois has denied a warrant request by the government to force any individual in a given location to use their fingerprints to unlock Apple devices found in the area.

David Weisman, a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, concluded last week that the government did not present sufficient evidence for its request, raising concerns about potential violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

If granted, the warrant would have allowed law enforcement to force any individual on the scene of an investigation to use their fingerprint to unlock any Apple iPhone, iPad, or other Apple device found there.

ADVERTISEMENT

The government currently is legally allowed to force specific individuals to unlock an Apple device with their fingerprint if they have sufficient evidence. A 2014 Virginia court ruling distinguished between a passcode and fingerprint, blocking law enforcement from forcing people to give up passcodes by defining them as testimony but allowing them to compel people to unlock devices with fingerprint sensors. 

The specific warrant sought by the government in Illinois had to do with an investigation into sexual abuse of multiple victims in a specific location and trafficking of child pornography using the location’s internet connection.

“Essentially, the government seeks an order from this Court that would allow agents executing this warrant to force ‘persons at the Subject Premises’ to apply their thumbprints and fingerprints to any Apple electronic device recovered at the premises. The request is neither limited to a particular person nor a particular device,” the judge wrote in his opinion.

“And … the request is made without any specific facts as to who is involved in the criminal conduct linked to the subject premises, or specific facts as to who is involved in the criminal conduct linked to the subject premises, or specific facts as to what particular Apple-branded encrypted device is being employed (if any),” he wrote.

Weisman concluded that the warrant application did not present facts to justify Fourth Amendment intrusions allowed in investigations by current law.

He also argued that the warrant raised Fifth Amendment concerns, recognizing that a fingerprint is not itself testimony but that the “production of information” resulting from forcing a person to unlock the device with his or her fingerprint could be deemed incriminating.

Weisman’s ruling represented a departure from a warrant granted in California last year, which was uncovered by Forbes.

Weisman did, however, leave the door open for future warrants should investigators find more evidence to support their case.

“This opinion should not be understood to mean that the government’s request for forced fingerprinting will always be problematic,” Weisman wrote.

“Indeed, after the execution of this warrant, the government may garner additional evidence that addresses both of these concerns such that the government can promptly apply for additional search warrants,” he wrote.