Cops can force you to use Touch ID, but not your passcode

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New York cops say iPhone encryption is making their job harder.
Photo: Killian Bell
Photo: Cult of Mac

One of the big pluses of iOS 8 has been the security measures Apple has taken, meaning that the company can no longer bypass security passwords to access your data if it’s requested by law enforcement. While viewed as a definite negative by the FBI, the emphasis on keeping user data safe has been a hit with customers.

A related feature has now been the subject of a court case in Virginia, however, with the judge ruling that cops can legally force suspects to manually unlock their iPhones using Touch ID.

This differs from the current ruling related to passcodes. Police cannot force defendants to give these up on the basis that they are considered “knowledge” rather than a physical object, and that knowledge is protected by the Fifth Amendment. A fingerprint, on the other hand, is considered to be more in line with a DNA sample or physical key, which means that citizens are compelled to give them up to police.

Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells Mashable that it is, “a good wake-up call for people to realize that fingerprint ID doesn’t necessarily provide the same sort of legal protection [that] a password does.”

The Virginia Beach court case concerns an investigation into an Emergency Medical Services captain who was charged in February with attempting to strangle his girlfriend. The defendant’s attorney had tried to bar prosecutors from getting access to his client’s phone, on the basis that it was fingerprint protected.

  • JW

    All one has to do is do a hard reset on the iPhone and it would then take the owners passcode to get back into their phone. The touch ID will not work once your phone is reset without entering the passcode to reactivate the fingerprint. Apple thinks of everything.

    • Rply

      i was thinking the same thing!!

    • John Owen

      Hopefully you’ll have time to shut-off/hard reset the phone!!!

    • OchoSisco

      Darn, you beat me to that point! Turning off the phone makes it to where it requires your passcode to unlock it (but only for the first unlock after rebooting)

    • I was once accused of stealing an iPhone and had to put in my password to verify it was mine. Unfortunately there always seems to be a double edged sword.

      • Tim LeVier

        I think maybe set your lock screen wallpaper to a picture of yourself? Or whatever picture you want, but in the corner or on the edge, put a “Property of….” line.

      • I don’t want to do that lol. Just saying they will always try to find a loop hole.

      • Tim LeVier

        Ha – nevermind. With Apple Health I set up my emergency medical ID card which is available when the phone is locked under “emergency” on the password screen.

      • Thats true. I forgot about that now but it wasn’t available back then.

    • yankeesusa

      Yea, but do you have to time to do a hard reset when the cop is right there asking you to unlock phone? doesn’t make any sense.

    • lucascott

      Actually you just need a good lawyer to hold up the search warrant for 48 hours for the touch id to disable on its own. Cause without that warrant they can’t go into your phone. Well they can but a decent lawyer would get everything found tossed due to the lack of the warrant

  • Michael Weisberg

    And I love how they continue to try and get around SCOTUS rulings. You cannot force me to unlock my mobile device without a valid search warrant. There is no if, ands, or buts about it. SCOTUS has ruled on it in ‘Riley v. California’. Without a valid search warrant any forcible entry into my mobile device violates my 4th amendment rights. If they have a valid warrant then they can compel me to unlock it.

    • Steven

      Thank you for mentioning this. Don’t people remember this case? It was a huge ruling, only a few months ago. And it was pretty clear that getting into a phone with a passcode or Touch ID is just splitting hairs. The entire ruling was based on access to the information in the phone, not how authorities access it. Without a search warrant, they can’t to the info on your phone. Period. No difference between Touch ID or passcode. This Virginia judge must be a real stooge.

      Still, I continue to be amazed at the willingness of people to try to work around it. “Turn your phone off then back on, use a differed finger,” etc. etc. How about, “I will gladly unlock my phone when you provide me with a valid search warrant.” THAT is the correct response.

    • lucascott

      They aren’t getting around this ruling at all. Presumbly they had the warrant or got one and the defendant refused to give up the passcode, which is also protected by several rulings. So the judge said that his finger isn’t the same as forcing him to give up the code. Now the guys lawyer needs to hit the appeals and argue that it in fact is.

      • Steven

        If they had a warrant, that’s a different situation altogether. I reread the article and didn’t see any mention of that. In that case, I don’t see how you could refuse a Touch ID OR a passcode. I don’t believe the Supreme Court said you could refuse if they had a search warrant; I believe their ruling stated that police couldn’t simply stop or detain you and force you to unlock your phone. They must obtain a warrant on persons they arrest:

        http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/26/us/supreme-court-cellphones-search-privacy.html?_r=1

  • Steve_Sava

    so here is what we have learned to date with being arrested.. 1. remotely erase your phone with iCloud – before police put in airplane mode. 2. turn off your iPhone before – the police chop off your digits to unlock your iPhone..

  • Tim LeVier

    Here’s the enhancement request feedback I left with Apple at apple.com/feedback

    I like using Control Center from my lock screen for the flashlight & music controls so I have it enabled. But if I ever lost my phone, this would give the person who found it/took it the ability to turn on Airplane Mode. Currently my only setting options are On/Off, but could we add a 3rd option that only disabled the top line of buttons? (Airplane, WiFi, Bluetooth)

    Also, TouchID currently only verifies ID, can we add a 2nd feature so that it Verifies ID and puts the phone in Lockdown? (require password/passcode) When in Lockdown, no part of control center or camera would be available even from the lockscreen if enabled.

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    Maybe this last part isn’t clear, but I’d like to be able to use one of my fingers to put the phone in Lockdown while the others would simply do what they do today.

  • Barrett Jasper

    All you’d have to do is scrape off a tiny bit of skin on the finger you registered the touchID with so it no longer works. I “cheese grated” my finger a tiny bit while grating some garlic cloves and it wouldn’t register my finger print. So when pulled over just rub a tiny bit of skin off a hard edge on the car real quick, you could do it without being seen and voila! Sounds gross but it’s really not and you don’t have to bleed to get the job done lol….This assuming, you REALLY don’t want them in your device looking at your drug deal texts. hahaha

  • Michael

    The work around is simple. Three failed finger print presses and the phone then requires a passcode to unlock. If you are forced to unlock with a print and use the wrong fingers, oops, password only. No need for hard reset.

    • lucascott

      contempt of court and obstruction of justice issues. Then again, if you get off the murder rap what’s a few weeks over those two

  • lucascott

    This is a circuit judge ruling. Not SCOTUS so who knows how it will turn out in the end.

  • Utrarunner5

    just put your phone into recovery mode quick and say it won’t work

  • disqus_RTtFkBbfvH

    “A fingerprint, on the other hand, is considered to be more in line with a DNA sample or physical key, which means that citizens are compelled to give them up to police.”

    Yes, they are allowed to confiscate your keys; but they are most certainly NOT allowed to then use them to go into your house without a warrant to do so.

    This will not stand.