In May of 2016, Department of Justice officials wrote a memorandum seeking a warrant to search a Lancaster, California, premises and to force the occupants to unlock any phones or electronic devices with their fingerprints if the devices were equipped with that technology. This amounted to a fishing expedition to circumvent previous court rulings which held that law enforcement could not compel a criminal suspect to unlock an electronic device with their pass code because that would be a violation of the Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination. It is unclear whether the DoJ ultimately received the warrant they sought because not all documents related to the case are publicly available.
“Creation of Adam,” by Michelangelo
Why is compelling a suspect to unlock a device with their fingerprint also not a violation of the Fifth Amendment? Because of a 2014 ruling in a Virginia Circuit Court which stated that fingerprints and other bodily attributes are not protected, while handing over a pass code to law enforcement is divulging of information, which is protected. Law enforcement has long been able to use a suspect’s physical characteristics to incriminate him or her, but has not been allowed to compel a suspect to give up information. The problem now is that technology has leaped ahead of current law, and judges and prosecutors are falling back on anachronistic case law to cope with the use of biometrics like fingerprints and iris scans to lock personal electronic devices. Case law going back one hundred years and more treats fingerprints as a way of determining a suspect’s culpability at a crime scene, not as a key to a suspect’s possessions which may or may not contain evidence. It is obtuse to claim that a fingerprint or any other biometric is not the same as a pass code when it is being used for the same purpose.
“All seeing eye,” from U.S. currency
The use of biometrics is springing up not only in consumer devices, but in technology used by the military and law enforcement. The 2002 film, Minority Report, depicts a dystopian future when law enforcement and advertisers make great use of biometrics, and those predictions are proving more accurate with each passing year. The Department of Justice already uses facial recognition technology for surveillance of people in public spaces, and as we have seen with the National Security Agency, the ability of modern digital storage to accumulate massive amounts of data encourages the practice of scooping up everything indiscriminately. Like a fishing trawler using a drift net, law enforcement intends to collect everything now, store it, and sort it all out later. They think they are being efficient and better safe than sorry. But people are not fish subject to by-catch, which ought to be obvious enough, and to be sure the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution make the distinction clear.
Randolph County, Georgia, Veterans Memorial Park Bill of Rights marker;
photo by Michael Rivera