The issue of law enforcement and their need to unlock someone’s smartphone is a complicated one, both technically and ethically. It turns out Apple’s Face ID devices, like the iPhone X and iPhone XS, are only making this more difficult. A new leak has revealed that a forensics company is teaching police to not look at the screens of suspects’ iPhones with Face ID, in turn ensuring they get as many chances as possible to unlock the device.
Face ID works like this: users have five attempts to glance at the facial recognition cameras on the front of the iPhone in order to unlock it. If those attempts fail, either because the user just wasn’t correctly recognized or because it was not the actual owner, Face ID is disabled and the device requires a passcode to be typed in to unlock.
As detailed by Motherboard, a leaked presentation slide from Elcomsoft reveals that the forensics company is teaching these steps to law enforcement across the US, explaining that if officers look at a Face ID iPhone’s screen too many times it can use up the five unlock attempts.
“This is quite simple. Passcode is required after five unsuccessful attempts to match a face,” Elcomsoft CEO Vladimir Katalov told Motherboard. “So by looking into suspect’s phone, [the] investigator immediately lose one of [the] attempts.”
The Fifth Amendment protects suspects from being forced into giving up their passcode to unlock a device, but biometric security systems, like Face ID and fingerprint sensors, don’t fall under that protection, and can be legally used as ways to gain access. Earlier this year, an FBI investigation saw the first instance of a suspect forced to unlock their iPhone X with a Face ID scan.
Until they become more familiar with the security systems on the latest smartphones, officers will need to take more precautions when handling suspects’ devices.