Judge says no to police forcing phone unlocks with face

A judge in the District Court for the Northern District of California has denied the police a warrant which would force suspects to open their phones through biometric authentication.

While it might seem like somewhat of an unusual scenario, we’re sure many of you are imagining a man pinned to the ground with a phone being waved in his face, it is important to set precedent in these matters. Just as law enforcement agencies cannot be granted a warrant forcing an individual to hand over his/her password, suspects or criminals cannot be forced to open devices through the biometric sensors according to the ruling.

The case itself focuses on two individuals, who are suspected of attempting to extort money from a third person through Facebook Messenger. The pair are threatening to release an embarrassing video of the third person should the funds not be transferred.

Northern California Federal District Judge Kandis Westmore ruled the authorities did not have probable cause for the warrant, perhaps due to the reason said messages and threats could be read through the third persons account, and the request was too broad. This is another example of authorities over reaching and not being specific, leaving too much room for potential abuse.

While this case might sound odd, the world should be prepared for more such rulings in the future.

“The challenge facing the courts is that technology is far outpacing the law,” the ruling from Judge Westmore states. “In recognition of this reality, the United States Supreme Court recently instructed courts to adopt rules that ‘take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or in development’.

“Courts have an obligation to safeguard constitutional rights and cannot permit those rights to be diminished due to the advancement of technology.”

In short, the rules and regulations of the land are not in fitting with today’s technology and society, but this does not mean law enforcement authorities can take advantage of the grey areas. This is perhaps an obvious statement to make, but it does hammer home the need for reform to ensure rules and regulations are contextually relevant.

While progress has been slow, there have been a few breakthroughs for privacy advocates in recent months. Last June, the US Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter versus US case that the collection of mobile location data on individuals without a warrant was a violation of data privacy and the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution.

The issue which many courts are facing is precedent. Lawyers are arguing for certain cases and warrants using precedent which is from another era. Theoretically, these rules can be applied, but when you consider the drastic and fundamental changes which have occurred in the communications world, you have to wonder whether anything from previous decades is relevant anymore.

As Judge Westmore points out, technology is vastly outpacing the pace of change in public sector institutions. This presents a massive risk of abuse, but slowing innovation is not a reasonable option. A tricky catch-22.