I’ll unpack the Constitutional issues in a bit, but first, the technology.
Michigan State University professor who holds six U.S. patents for fingerprint recognition technology was asked by police to help catch a murderer. The cops scans of the victim’s fingerprints and thought that unlocking his phone might provide clues as to who killed him.
The professor converted the fingerprint scans and 3D printed versions of all 10 digits. He then coated them with a micro-layer of metallic particles to mimic skin’s conductivity. The final 3D-printed fingers aren’t finished, but they’ll be ready for police to try out soon.
The potential Constitutional issues here are an amazing challenge to the Fourth Amendment’s assurances against unwarranted search, and the Fifth’s protections against self-incrimination. They don’t apply to this current case, as the prints in question comes from a dead man, but…
In in 2014 a judge controversially ruled that (living) suspects can be required to unlock a phone with a fingerprint. While the Fifth Amendment protects the right to avoid self-incrimination and makes it illegal to force someone to give out a passcode, biometric indicators like fingerprints are not covered by the Fifth Amendment, according to the ruling. So, if your phone or other device is protected with a fingerprint, the current law says cops can compel you to open it. If the phone is protected by a PIN number, the cops cannot compel you to open it.
The judge’s logic is interesting. He wrote giving police a fingerprint is akin to providing a DNA or handwriting sample, or presumably an iris scan or facial recognition, which the law permits. A pass code, though, requires the defendant to divulge knowledge, which the law protects against.
It is not hard to imagine a future court ruling that all a bunch of nonsense and (hopefully) declaring the police cannot compel you to unlock your phone for them. But of course the cops can fingerprint you, and can have those prints 3D reproduced, and might be able to open your phone that way. So is or is that not Constitutional?
And cool: if the police already have your iris scan, facial data or prints on file, they don’t even need to bother to talk to you about any of this at some point.
In the age of Snowden’s revelations, big data and all sorts of electronic spy gear we have yet to learn about or invent, has technology finally outrun the otherwise pretty good record of the Bill of Rights for keeping up with the times?
BONUS: Protect your phone with a strong PIN at the minimum.
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