A nifty feature that was first introduced on the iPhone 5s is Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor, making it easier to unlock your device and purchase apps and games in the App Store. However, while the police cannot make you unlock your iPhone with a passcode, they can force you to use Touch ID to unlock it.
According to Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Steven Frucci, police can legally force you to unlock your iPhone by using the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, allowing them to search through your phone for evidence during a criminal investigation. However, police cannot legally force you to unlock your iPhone using a passcode.
The reason for this is that using Touch ID is just like handing in a DNA sample or a fingerprint, which police are already allowed to force users to provide, whereas a passcode is considered “knowledge” and not a physical object. The Fifth Amendment protects people from giving up passwords, but it does not cover physical objects, which a fingerprint technically is. Thus, using Touch ID to access someone’s iPhone is completely legal.
Of course, this decision only affects a sliver of Virginia, but it’s completely possible (and almost likely) that other courts will follow suit and we wouldn’t be surprised if it moved up into the Supreme Court.
This ruling comes shortly after both Apple and Google made improvements to the security of iOS and Android to make it harder for authorities to gain access to information on users’ devices, but the FBI and even the US Attorney General have complained that this makes it more difficult to investigate crimes.
While this could be seen as a huge blow for privacy advocates, there is actually an easy way around this new law. Lifehacker notes that simply rebooting your device before you’ll think the police will need access to it disables Touch ID and requires a passcode to be entered.
This is a feature that’s been baked into iOS 7 and into iOS 8 as well. Whenever you restart your iPhone, the operating system disables Touch ID and requires users to enter in the passcode instead on the first time. Doing this will bypass the new law and precent police from accessing your iPhone.
Of course, this could be seen as obstruction of justice, but that’s probably something we’ll hear more about in the near future as courts and judges will further rule on how Touch ID on the iPhone is to be used during police investigations.
Touch ID was introduced last year with the launch of the iPhone 5s and has been an extremely popular feature of the iPhone. It eventually made its way to the iPad lineup on the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 3, as well as came back to the iPhone with the launch of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus back in September.
While it’s seen as a massive security feature for the iPhone and iPad, Apple has touted it mostly as a convenient feature, allowing users to just scan their fingerprint instead of having to type in a passcode or password every time they want to unlock their devices or purchase an app in the iTunes App Store.