Virginia police can force you to unlock your smartphone using fingerprint: Here's why


iOS 8 may boast encryption that's capable of thwarting the world's best forensics software for years, but a Virginia judge has ruled that citizens can be legally compelled to use their finger prints to unlock their phones to searches.

Circuit Court Judge Steven C. Frucci ruled that defendants in criminal cases can be forced to submit their fingerprints to unlock mobile devices, which is in the same spirit of laws for the submission of DNA or handwriting samples.

Judge Frucci's ruling doesn't cover passcodes, which he stated would require defendants to divulge information. It's a basic right -- defendants have the right to remain silent.

The issue of fingerprint-protected smartphones arouse in Virginia court case, in which an emergency medical services captain is accused of attempting to strangle his girlfriend. Since there were video cameras set up in the defendant's bedroom, the scene of the alleged incident, prosecutors proposed that video of the altercation may be on the man's Touch ID-protected smartphone.

Judge Frucci's ruling is a win for law enforcement agencies, which have expressed disgust over the high-level encryption rolled out in iOS 8 and Google's incoming Android L. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder drove home the point of law enforcement agencies when he expressed disapproval of the increasingly tougher encryption being used by mobile devices.

"Recent technological advances have the potential to greatly embolden online criminals, providing new methods for abusers to avoid detection," Holder said. "Many take advantage of encryption and anonymizing technology to conceal contraband materials and disguise their locations."

Despite passcodes remaining protected, the ruling is a bit of an ironic loss for Apple's Touch ID. The fingerprint scanning tech was heralded as a more secure and more convenient alternative to passcode, but the Virginia Beach ruling could compel more iOS users to pair their fingerprint security with an old-fashion passcode.

"Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data," says Apple. "So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8."

Judge Frucci's ruling comes as no surprise to Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It's a reminder of the importance of a passcode, according to Fakhoury.

"It's exactly what we thought it would happen when Apple announced its fingerprint ID," says Fakhoury. "[I]t's just a good wake-up call for people to realize that fingerprint ID doesn't necessarily provide the same sort of legal protection than a password does."

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