In a historic decision that might just signal how the law is catching up with modern technology, a California judge ruled that the government does not have the right to force individuals to open their phones using their biometrics. Citizens of New York will be glad to know that not only does this ruling go one more step towards protecting the privacy of every American, but it also flies in the face of numerous other rulings that preceded it.
In earlier rulings, judges had deemed that government officials were within their right to force someone to unlock their phone using their biological features. What’s interesting is that these same judges declared that a suspect cannot be forced to give away their passcode seeing as that would violate their Fifth Amendment rights: mainly, the right to not incriminate themselves. However, judges saw that biological features were not considered testimonials; hence, cops and federal officers weren’t forcing suspects to incriminate themselves when they forced them to unlock their phones using their irises or fingerprints.
Alternatively, the California judge saw things differently. Explaining her logic, she said that given the biometrics were being used for the same exact purpose a passcode would have been used for, then they should be considered as testimonials. She went on to add that it was important for the law to catch up with today’s technology and that it is wrong to consider biological features as physical evidence in a context where they would be used to unlock a phone. Finally, she added that the government has at its disposal numerous other ways of uncovering the contents of the phone, none of which infringe on an individual’s Fifth Amendment rights.
Even though this decision is an important step forward for the law, it is still possible that a district court judge could overturn it entirely. Nevertheless, if anyone is concerned about their privacy, they can start by locking their phone using a strong passcode. Additionally, they can speak to a lawyer who might explain their rights along with available options.