There are many ways to protect your smartphone: password, pin, pattern, and more recently, a fingerprint. While legally you can’t be compelled as part of an investigation to reveal any of the first three, a judge has ruled that you can be forced to relinquish your fingerprint to investigators seeking access to your device. The reason, says the judge, is that the fingerprint isn’t knowledge like a password, but is instead a physical object of sorts, like a key or a DNA sample.
The ruling was made recently by Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Steven Frucci, and was the result of a case against EMS captain David Baust, who was accused of attempted strangulation. The case’s prosecutors wanted access to Baust’s phone, believing that it might have a video of the alleged crime, but the defendant’s lawyer argued against this.
According to Baust’s attorney, the Fifth Amendment lends protection to pass codes, and that by handing it over Baust might be incriminating himself. The judge ultimately agreed with that argument, ruling that a pass code is protected because requiring it would force the defendant to reveal knowledge. That protection does not extend to biometric security, however.
The ruling itself isn’t unusual, in that it is known that fingerprints are considered physical objects. What is important is the legal precedent it sets for future cases involving digital fingerprint protection, and highlights the issues users should understand when choosing what type of security they utilize.
Update: An earlier version of this article mis-stated the crime EMS captain David Baust was accused of, and has since been corrected. SlashGear apologizes for the mistake and any offense caused.