Cops obtain a warrant demanding individuals unlock iPhones with their fingerprint

By , Oct 17, 2016


California’s top cops seem to have obtained a questionable warrant request to enter a residence and force anyone inside to use biometric information to open their fingerprint-locked iPhones purely on the assumption they’ll learn more after they access the phones, Forbes reported this morning.

Deemed as “an unprecedented attempt to bypass the security of Apple’s iPhones,” Forbes found a court filing in which the Department of Justice sought to search a Lancaster, California, property.

The filing, dated May 9, 2016, explicitly seeks authorization to:

Depress the fingerprints and thumbprints of every person who is located at the SUBJECT PREMISES during the execution of the search and who is reasonably believed by law enforcement to be the user of a fingerprint sensor-enabled device that is located at the SUBJECT PREMISES and falls within the scope of the warrant.

An anonymous person at the premises confirmed that the warrant has been served.

The warrant basically gives the police right to seize any confidential information from a suspect’s device, including “passwords, encryption keys and other access devices that may be necessary to access the device”.

“They want the ability to get a warrant on the assumption that they will learn more after they have a warrant,” cautioned legal expert Marina Medvin of Medvin Law.

Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, warns that the government must specify what information it is expected to find on a mobile device before compelling the owner to unlock it with their fingerprint.

She 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.

The reason I’m so concerned about this is that it’s so broad in scope and the government is relying on these outdated cases to give it access to this amazing amount of information.

The part the government is ignoring here is the vast amount of data that’s on the phone. If this kind of thing became law then there would be nothing to prevent… a search of every phone at a certain location.

More worryingly, the filing along with related court documents in this case were not available to the public before. Wired recently reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been considering “legal and technical options“ regarding unlocking an iPhone in a case similar to the San Bernardino shooting.

Apple stepped up security in iOS 10 to further prevent hacking of locked devices. It’s also instituted an official bug bounty program to strengthen the security of its products.

Source: Forbes

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  • John Smith

    So that’s why Apple replaced slide to unlock with press home…

    • leart

      i think the same, that’s why i skipped iOS 10 for the moment.. I’m not loosing nothing except for the new fancy interface and some bugs

    • Not sure what you’re implying. Are you saying that Apple wanted people to press the home button in the off chance that law enforcement would someday get a warrant to force people to use fingerprints?

      Truth be told, with more people than ever using fingerprints to unlock their devices, apple got rid of slide to unlock because most people didn’t use it anymore.

      The second reason was that people would often get a notification and wake their phone with the home button only to have their phone unlock and clear all notifications before they could be read (especially if you had TouchID 2).

      The Third issue was that this outdated method of unlocking phones took up space on the lock screen that could be used by the new iOS 10 notifications that have a lot more intractability in them. Switching to this method not only give more room for rich notifications but also gives the user the ability to authenticate themselves on wake to interact with their notifications more seamlessly without having them all immediately clear (as I mentioned in point 2).

      Anyways there are others but I don’t want this to be super long 😛

      • John Smith

        Outside of the united states, there’s still so many people who still have iDevices that both support iOS 10 and lack TouchID. You could use a number like “1/3 of people”, but think that over 500 million devices are still supported. That’s well over 155 million, more than half of the US population. Think about that many people who can’t use TouchID, yet are forced to use the new method of unlocking their device.

        Apart from that 155 million, there’s still a lot of people who don’t use TouchID. I didn’t use it until iOS 10, and a lot of eldery people who have a TouchID enabled device don’t use it. That skyrockets the amount of people who have to click home twice to unlock, where swiping was much simpler.

        Tim Cook himself said that they were working on the best way to help law enforcement without breaking the law. Forcing someone to enter their passcode was deemed unconstitutional, but a warrant to force someone to unlock their device was ruled as constitutional.

        They definitely could have implemented the widgets without sacrificing swipe to unlock. The camera could have remained a swipe up from right side feature, and widgets could have been to the right rather than the left.

        By making TouchID the quickest way to unlock the device, AND eliminating swipe, only more and more people will use TouchID by default, allowing the law to apply to many more than it ever would had swipe to unlcok remained.

      • Mr_Coldharbour

        You make a very sound argument and I’m inclined to agree with you. Also, yes, “Slide to unlock” is much simpler and better in my opinion.

      • Ok first of all, Apple said that the reason they wanted to put in TouchID to begin with is because the vast majority of their users had 0 security in place. What’s the point of building state of the art security when people can’t be bothered to type in a passcode?

        So no, it wasn’t an elaborate scheme to get everyone access to your phone, Apple went with touch ID to getting more people to protect their data without making it more difficult to unlock. Apple has been clear from the beginning that they are willing to work with law enforcement and they have outlined on their site EXACTLY what they mean by that. Why would Apple fight so hard against the government to avoid building a back door if years ago they conspired with the government to use fingerprints as the backdoor? Did the government not get the memo?

        It appears that you are also confusing personal preference here. Technically clicking the home button, moving your thumb to the screen and swiping sideways to unlock is more work than double clicking the home button. Especially if you suffer from something like carpel tunnel or a select few other medical issues with your thumb. Not only is it less work, but it’s more accessible to some people now that the new phones allow you to set how hard you have to press to activate a click.

        I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t care about security, don’t understand why it’s not important or have too old of devices to use the latest techniques. But that’s no reason for Apple to not try to make things easier and more secure for their latest customers and more accessible to customers with disabilities. Try telling someone with severe arthritis in their thumb that it’s significantly easier to swipe and remember we all have personal preferences. Please don’t make yours into some stage to claim Apple is doing things they aren’t.


      • Michele Hogan

        You’re not forced to use it. Until last week, I had an iPhone 5C and found the new 2-step process annoying. Go to Settings>Accessibility>Rest Finger to Open, and toggle that on, and you’re back to a “normal” opening process.

      • You can also touch the button with an un-enrolled finger then the phone will prompt you to enter the password ya know..

      • Mr_Coldharbour

        I for one am very fond of having a “Slide to Unlock” on my 6S Plus. If one happens to have very dry and cracked fingertips, TouchID frequently fails forcing the user to input a passcode. There are times that after a first failed attempt at TouchID I just input a passcode and the “Press to unlock” is a rather clunky interface in my opinion. Which is why my 6S Plus is still on 9.3.5 (among other reasons also) and my 6 is on 10.1 beta.

      • Well technically, double clicking is mathematically less work than clicking, moving your finger to the screen and then swiping as it requires far less movement of the finger. (Something that’s of particular interest to some people with issues like carpel tunnel or arthritis – especially now that you can set how hard you need to press to activate a click on the latest phones).

        If you have the 6S Plus then you are probably also aware that if you have to manually enter the passcode for some reason it can be hard to enter with one hand especially if you have the 3 in there. But if you have the fingerprint scanner why not just go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Home Button > Rest finger to open. This way you can update your phone and unlock with a single click again. Gets rid of swiping and clicking that second time.

        Anyways, I’m not saying that your personal preference isn’t valid, and I totally understand if you don’t want to switch. My only two claims in this thread are that personal preference doesn’t mean that it’s not a better setup especially for people with medical issues. And I’m trying to dispel the myth that Apple build the fingerprint reader as a backdoor and is forcing everyone to use it.

      • Mr_Coldharbour

        As I said before, for those with particularly dry and cracked fingertips, TouchID (even on the vastly improved TouchID sensor on the 6S (Plus)-series) does fail a noticeable amount of the time and just inputting the passcode manually is quicker. The response time when “Slide to Unlock” was the standard felt quicker whereas the “Tap/click to unlock” always needed a fraction of a second longer to get me to the passcode/number-pad screen. In addition, this just doubles or triples the number of clicks/taps on the Home Button making it wear and tear ever more quickly.

        Also, the argument that Apple implemented this new standard to aid law enforcement is a sound argument and calling a myth might be a bit premature because you don’t for sure if it’s a myth. They (Apple) made it very clear that they wanted to help law enforcement in every way they can and this just might be the least intrusive way (in their viewpoint, in my viewpoint it seems rather underhanded).

      • No. It’s not premature at all. Apple has taken an aggressive stance on protecting user data and every action along the way has supported those claims. The only way this accusation could be true is if Apple has been lying to everyone about their intentions from day one. It would require that Apple knew the future (since until recently no one would have assumed that warrants could include this) and it jumps the gun because this has yet to be challenged in a court of law (and believe me that will happen just like police demanding your passcode was).

        All that to say, Apple’s claims, actions, inability to see the future and the fact that this precedent hasn’t even been challenged yet to see if it becomes legal or not make any claims that Apple masterminded a massive backdoor into iOS laughably premature. Or is Apple an exception to the rule and always guilty until proven innocent?

        Not to mention that this is extraordinarily easy to get around. Just shut your device off if you think the police are coming. Apple will immediately disable all reading of the fingerprint sensor until the next time the password has been entered. If Apple really wanted to force everyone into using a massive back door why have they also allowed everyone the choice of whether or not to use it and even made it auto disable in several instances? Sorry, the only premature claim here is that this is all a massive conspiracy to trick us into giving the government free access to our phones 😛

      • Mr_Coldharbour

        Do not misunderstand what I was trying to say. Apple’s vehement stance for user-privacy and security is something that should truly be commended and admired and I trust Apple more than any other technology company. But I feel as though their recent feud(s) with law enforcement and subpoenas demanding access to more and more iPhones and the like are beginning to pile up that they have a rather uphill battle and that maybe it was “more heat than they anticipated / could handle” they feel as though the only course of action is to try and comply which might be why they’ve changed some of the standards to unlocking iOS devices (and more recently with local iTunes backups of iOS devices having weaker encryption protocols). All I’m saying is one should be as objective and cautious as possible. One should not be overly skeptic, but also one should not always blindly commend Apple no matter that they do.

      • Fair enough. But my point still stands. Apple has 0 secrets for how it helps law enforcement with phones. In fact when you mentioned them piling up you might be interested to know that 94% of all government requests relating to phones are on behalf of the users (like recovering stolen phones and what not) and when you put that last percentage of requests against the total number of active users only 0.006% of iPhone users have been affected by this type of activity you say is “piling up”.

        So nope. I don’t believe that they are piling up. I don’t believe (given the stance that Apple has publicly taken) that they are trying to build backdoors. And I don’t think it’s more heat than they could handle. Even if they threw Tim Cook in jail he’d be out on bail in immediately and the publicity would be through the roof! Apple at this point in time has literally nothing to loose and everything to gain by pushing the security narrative as far as they can get it considering it’s such a hot topic right now.

        I’m not overly skeptic, nor am I a blind Apple follower. But I believe that a company (or a person) should be judged on one’s actions and the overwhelming amount of them have suggested that this is in fact exactly how they presented it. A tool to improve security. After all, before it came out most users had 0 password security on their device. So at the end of the day even if cops have an easier time getting access to it, criminals don’t and people are still more secure than they were with nothing.

    • luckily we are not forced to have TouchID turned on nor to use it as the only way to unlock it.

      Also it is a longer process but you can still slide to unlock by sliding to the camera and tapping the photo icon on the bottom left, finally tapping all photos will prompt you to enter your passcode all without pressing the home button.

  • Digitalfeind

    Law enforcement cannot make you unlock your device with a passcode lock.

  • Kaptivator

    How about you “learn more” before you get the warrant. Sheesh…Be a cop or an investigator and investigate.

    • You do realize that warrants aren’t handed out without evidence to begin with right? And a search warrant exists to collect additional evidence. Unfortunately these days it often seems like criminals have more rights than cops. So much for the 5th amendment…

      • CyPh3r

        You are misguided and naive if you think getting a warrant involves meeting some high threshold of evidence. The police are well aware of which judge will likely grant a warrant with the least amount of evidence or reasonable suspicion. It’s a game between the police, DA and defense. Unfortunately, the prize is often someone’s freedom.

        The concern about defaulting to biometrics for unlocking what is often a treasure trove of personal information is well founded. As mentioned by another poster, the US Supreme Court has accepted that compelling an individual to use one’s fingerprint (or any other biometric) is constitutional since no knowledge is “communicated.” It is as valid as compelling one to provide one’s fingerprint for identification or blow into a breathalyzer or provide blood for a toxicology test.

        I am curious as to your obvious (almost a default) bias in favor of the police.

      • Bugs Bunnay

        Correct! Your are not divulging any information!

      • I’m fully aware that corruption exist on all levels but for the sake of dialogue I’m only talking about the law as it is written.

        According to the way our legal system is designed, warrants are issued when a neutral and detached (objective) person is convinced with evidence available that there is probable cause to search a location for additional material. Back when these laws were created searching a house would mean accesses to virtually every aspect of a person’s life. Medical records, letter received, diaries/journals, you name it. These days however that information has become largely digital and we want to tell the law enforcement to stay out of it while still doing the same quality of work as before. You can still search the house, but any information that they have stored digitally is now hands off.

        Somehow the 5th amendment (which specifically protects the rights of law enforcement to gain access to this type of material) has been twisted around to prevent it. People who claim that giving up a passcode is equivalent to testifying against yourself haven’t read the 5th amendment and don’t understand the history in which our legal system was created. That’s all I’m saying.

        You’ll notice that no where did I say our system was free of corruption nor did I say there was no way it could be improved, nor did I even say that it was a good one. I’m simply trying to avoid obvious bias by taking a look at what the laws are and how they are being applied and asking questions as to what people hope to accomplish with bizarre interpretations, and instituting rules to make some investigations harder. Perhaps they hate our current system and seek to change it piece by piece?

        So no bias. If we want to talk about the merits of our legal system or the corruption in it we could… however it doesn’t have much place I think in this context. I’m simply trying to understand how people take the law that we have and use it the way that it is being used.

      • CyPh3r

        The Fifth Amendment does not address law enforcement’s right to search an individual’s property. Rather it provides, chiefly, that no person be required to testify against himself or herself in a criminal case and that no person be subjected to a second trial for an offense for which he or she has been duly tried previously.

        It is precisely the right to not provide incriminating evidence against oneself which is the crux of the question. Not communicating any information that can be used against oneself (affirmed in Miranda) is the right granted and affirmed. It does not grant the right, to the police, to compel one to testify against oneself. The communication of a password IS testifying. ANY verbal communication is testifying. The police have the right to ask any question they wish. They do not have the right to force it out of you.

        Did you mean to cite the Fourth Amendment perhaps?

        However, the Fourth Amendment protects personal privacy, and every citizen’s right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion into their persons, homes, businesses, and property — whether through police stops of citizens on the street, arrests, or searches of homes and businesses.

        I don’t read it as providing any right to the police. Rather (I am not a legal scholar) it seems to compel the government/police to seek the right to effect such a search through the judiciary. It curtails the power of the government in intruding upon the privacy of the citizen.

        I agree that a balance must be found between the issues of privacy and law enforcement. However, it should never come at the loss of autonomy and personal privacy. These are bedrock principles in ANY open society.

      • Uhm nope. I’m reading the 5th amendment and this is why I’m so confused. Have you even read the 5th? In the off chance not let me post it here and show why I’m confused.

        No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

        So as you see there are a lot of items in here but let’s take a look at just the item that pertains to this discussion.

        “… nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; …”

        Do you see how that sentence ends? Let me see if this helps you…

        “… nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself … without due process of law; …”.

        The 5th amendment literally states that you can not be compelled to testify against yourself without due process of law. This means by reverse that you can be compelled to testify against yourself with due process of law. Again we can look at another piece of that statement…

        “… nor shall be … deprived of life … without due process of law; …”

        Now I know that in this country we still practice capitol punishment (not arguing for or against it just stating a fact) and this statement which (and this is important) is part of the same statement about testifying against yourself. That means logically if we accept capitol punishment as legal under 5th amendment we have to accept testifying against yourself. Conversely if testifying against yourself is illegal than capital punishment should be too. As well as due process of law to allow seizure of property (which we all know happens as well).

        My point is and has always been that the 5th amendment doesn’t say what people seem to be arguing and I have no idea how these laws passed in the first place. Perhaps you can explain how I’m wrong in my interpretations?

  • pnh

    I’m not an attorney (nope, I don’t even play one on TV) but that would be a violation of your 5th Amendment rights and any evidence they obtain with that would get tossed out in court.

    • Digitalfeind

      “In 2010, in U.S. v. Kirschner, a federal court in Michigan held that compelling a defendant to provide a passcode qualifies as testimony because it requires the defendant to “communicate knowledge, unlike the production of a handwriting sample or a voice exemplar,” which — like fingerprints — have long been excluded from Fifth Amendment protections.”

      • Personally I actually don’t have a problem with the government being able to require you to give them a passcode. If you think about it, police aren’t allowed on your property or to go looking through your belongings unless given a search warrant which essentially overrides your personal rights for the sake of investigation.

        If there was a warrant to gain access to a phone by requiring people to give up passwords I’d have no problem with that. If your basement has dead bodies in it and letting the police in your house would incriminate you why isn’t that protected under the 5th amendment? It just seems weird to me that if someone planned out a crime on paper and locked it in a safe in their house a warrant can be obtained and the safe broken into with enough evidence, but if that same information is locked away in a phone it’s untouchable.

    • Have you read the 5th amendment? Here, read it for yourself:

      Among the things that can’t happen we find the item in question: “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself … without due process of law”. The 5th amendment actually makes provision for accepting this kind of testimony assuming that there is due process of law. Just reading the amendment indicates that it is actually unconstitutional to prevent cops from using due process of law to request this kind of information.

      I have no idea how this passed and hope that someday it’s overturned. But for now, that’s where we are at sadly.

  • Rowan09

    Solution put on a passcode and turn off Touch ID before you let the cops in, if you’re doing some funny business. We need to update some of the laws.

    • Or just power off your phone quick. iOS will not allow you to use your fingerprints on boot essentially rendering them useless.

      • Rowan09


  • Joseph Duffy

    Generally, in the USA you cannot be “forced” to
    enter a passcode, while you can be compelled to unlock with a
    finger print.

    • Yeah it’s too bad though. It’s like we try to make lives harder for the cops and easier for the criminals. So much for the 5th amendment…

      • MWisBest

        Easier for SUSPECTED criminals. Fixed that for you.

        This country has a thing called “innocent until proven guilty”.

      • Fair enough. In this statement I actually prefer my wording since it’s not from a relativistic or uncertain viewpoint. In other words I’m saying that people who break the law have laws that protect them from cops. So I’m just calling them criminals (whether they are officially labeled as such or not), but obviously in a real life scenario I would totally agree with you!

  • I don’t really understand why this is such a big “unprecedented” deal to allow in the warrant. Don’t the police fingerprint people anyways when they arrest them? Even if they couldn’t force you to unlock it with your own thumb the technology is there to build artificial fingerprints that can unlock these kinds of scanners. Why not just have the police send in a scan of the thumbprint to some law agency and get back a custom made finger that will unlock the phone?

    • MWisBest

      Unless you live in a city with a million or more people, the police department doesn’t have that kind of resources. It’s not particularly easy to pull off either.

      What do you think is more likely to happen:
      – Person/police department uses resources far beyond their own reach to make some elaborate fake finger with your fingerprint to unlock the phone… or,
      – Your finger is forcibly pressed on the scanner against your will.

      Fingerprints are just awful for security. You’d be better off keeping a list of passwords in your wallet than using a fingerprint for a password.

      • Personally I don’t think it would be that big of a deal. If a cop asked someone to unlock the phone and they told them that they would simply get a fake finger made what would be the point of resisting? I don’t think many people would force them to do it.

        Also while the equipment is expensive I don’t think the cost to manufacture them is, so if one central agency handled this kind of things for people who resisted I think it wouldn’t have to be prohibitively expensive (but when has that ever stopped our government anyways?).

        Personally I just wish the stupid ruling that cops can’t ask people for pass codes would get overruled here soon so we don’t have to even have these conversations.

  • Johnson Noel

    They can’t force you to unlock your phone. That’s finger abuse and against the law.

  • burge

    It says Touch ID. Just turn it off.

  • Bugs Bunnay

    This is where activator comes in!