A federal judge recently signed a warrant requiring a woman to use her fingerprint to unlock her phone, The Los Angeles Times reports. The woman, Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan, was sentenced for identity theft the same day the warrant was signed, but it’s not clear why exactly the FBI wanted to unlock her phone. As the LA Times points out, Bkhchadzhyan was apparently the girlfriend of an alleged Armenian gang member.
Back in 2014, the US Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement needed to obtain a warrant before searching the phones of criminal suspects. And, as the LA Times points out, the Supreme Court has also held that police can “compel a person in custody to provide physical evidence such as fingerprints without a judge’s permission.”
Susan Brenner, a law professor at the University of Dayton, told the LA Times she believes forcing a person to unlock a phone with their fingerprint is a breach of the Fifth Amendment. But others have argued that the act of unlocking your phone does not necessarily constitute self-incrimination, and is not the same as requiring a person to provide their passcode. The use of a fingerprint for access into a phone is also a short term fix, as Apple’s Touch ID cannot be used if the phone has been locked for more than 48 hours.
The decision recalls the FBI’s recent, very public battle to unlock the iPhone linked to last year’s San Bernardino attacks. A judge first ordered Apple to unlock the shooter’s phone back in February, about 10 days before the warrant for Bkhchadzhyan was signed. Although the cases are very different (one woman in LA vs. one of the most powerful companies in the world), and the FBI ultimately didn’t need Apple’s help unlocking the phone, it’s further proof the FBI will continue to hunt for encryption backdoors.