California police raided a home in May and demanded that everyone in the residence use their fingers to unlock a mobile device.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) asked local law enforcement in Lancaster to obtain a warrant in order to access all phones and devices at the location in question, according to Forbes.
The memorandum, signed by Eileen Decker, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, details how certain devices from Apple, Motorola, HTC, Samsung, and others, offer more advanced passwords than just numbers and letters. Devices made and sold by these companies feature fingerprint technology, where sensors detect the distinctive grooves and nuances of people’s fingers.
“While the government does not know ahead of time the identity of every digital device or fingerprint (or indeed, every other piece of evidence) that it will find in the search,” the memorandum reads, “It has demonstrated probable cause that evidence may exist at the search location, and needs the ability to gain access to those devices and maintain that access to search them.”
The law enforcement agency argues that the warrant grants them wide-ranging power, specifically access to “passwords, encryption keys, and other access devices that may be necessary to access the device.”
Legal experts question their argument and its dubious legality. “They want the ability to get a warrant on the assumption that they will learn more after they have a warrant,” Marina Medvin of Medvin Law, told Forbes. Essentially, law enforcement is using the warrant to force people, who are not yet deemed suspects, to comply, says Medvin.
“It’s not enough for a government to just say we have a warrant to search this house and therefore this person should unlock their phone,” Senior Staff Attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Jennifer Lynch said. “The government needs to say specifically what information they expect to find on the phone, how that relates to criminal activity and I would argue they need to set up a way to access only the information that is relevant to the investigation.”
This case is reminiscent of the heated battle between Director James Comey with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Tim Cook of Apple over access to the smartphone of Syed Rizwan, one of the shooters of the 2015 San Bernardino attack.
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said it would not be able to unlock the phone because it would require inventing new “software equivalent of cancer” that would potentially compromise the private information of all iPhone users.
“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals,” Cook said in an official post.
Cook worried that this would set a dangerous legal precedent, and that people’s personal information that they keep on phones would be vulnerable.
“If this kind of thing became law then there would be nothing to prevent…a search of every phone at a certain location,” Lynch asserts, addressing the Lancaster, Calif. case.
The FBI eventually unlocked the phone on its own.
This latest case in California exemplifies the precarious dilemma the country faces, namely, when it is permissible or constitutional for police to gain access to the data on smartphones.
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