Skip to main content

Cops Unlock Dead People’s Phones Without Probable Cause

U.S. police have reportedly started to unlock dead people’s phones with their fingerprints without probable cause or anyone’s permission.

Dead Men Have Few Rights

Fingerprint readers have made it easier for most people to (relatively) securely lock and unlock their devices without using a complicated password. However, this increase in convenience also means that others will be able to unlock your device more easily if they can physically force you to unlock the device... or if you’re already dead. Forbes reported that police have used dead people's fingers to unlock their phones.

Although fingerprint-locked phones are not ideal from law enforcement’s point of view, because the police need a warrant to unlock them, it hasn't been all bad.

Courts have ruled that fingerprint-locked devices are not given the same Fifth Amendment protections that password-locked devices are given. The main argument is that you can’t claim to have forgotten your fingerprint as you can with passwords. This should apply to other biometric forms of authentication, too, such as face unlocking, iris recognition, voice authentication, and so on.

The one area where police have struggled is when a phone's owner (typically someone attacking others) died, whether it was because they blew themselves up or were shot by the police in an attempt to stop the attackers from causing more harm. At first the FBI tried to get Apple to unlock the devices by suing the company, but eventually the agency backed down, fearing the court would side with Apple and set a precedent.

It seems that now the government has started to simply unlock the devices using the dead people’s fingers. Some argue that although a dead person doesn’t have many rights, that doesn’t necessarily mean that law enforcement should scour through someone’s belongings (or body, for that matter) without some kind of permission, or at least probable cause.

Face ID Isn't Any Better

When Apple introduced Face ID on the iPhone X, it said that the system uses your attention in combination with eye movement in order to unlock the device. However, as some researchers have proven, Face ID could be unlocked with masks or even photos of open eyes. That could make it even easier to unlock iPhones or other devices using face authentication technology.

Fingerprint authentication remains the safest biometric authentication solution, but that doesn’t mean that the form of fingerprint authentication we have today is the best we’ll ever have. The technology to make pulse-detecting fingerprint readers has existed for years, for instance, but it hasn’t been deployed, presumably because there wasn’t much of a need for it. Similar technology has existed for face and eye scanning.

Biometric technology needs to constantly evolve to stay ahead of new attack vectors, whether it’s photos of the fingerprint or eyes, machine learning creating fake voices or faces, 3D printing masks and fingerprints, or even using dead people’s fingers.

  • alextheblue
    If there was a crime or suspected crime of some sort (hence police involvement), and someone involved died... I think they have enough probable cause to look through your stiff, I mean stuff.

    Now if you're trying to tell me there was no crime and they're going around door to door unlocking phones of people who died of natural causes, that could be an issue. But that does not seem to be the case, yeah?
    Reply
  • alextheblue
    Also why can't we comment on the offensive speech MS "opinion piece" you wrote? What does Tom's TOS say about offensive speech? Google? Apple? Facetwitsnapgram? You packed in rampant speculation about them locking people out of their entire MS account. You do know they can kick you off a single service without locking you out of your entire MS account, right? For example, tossing you off XBL but not locking you out of your OS and Office.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with the de facto censorship all the big firms are engaging in collectively when it comes to "public" posts. So yeah I am pretty annoyed with the whole arbitrary offensive speech business, I mean who decides what is offensive? Everything is offensive to someone. But I don't want to hear a website complaining about people being kicked/banned for offensive speech... when they kick/ban and otherwise censor people for offensive speech. Smacks a smidge bit of hypocrisy.
    Reply
  • bit_user
    20830431 said:
    If there was a crime or suspected crime of some sort (hence police involvement), and someone involved died... I think they have enough probable cause to look through your stiff, I mean stuff.
    The police often (always?) get involved, when someone dies - whether or not there's indication of a crime.

    And, when the article says "without probable cause", that's the point. So, what if police are collecting call & text history from phones of people who are even dead (or unconscious) from things like car accidents? It's not hard to imagine, if it's in an inner-city neighborhood, that they might want to build up a map of the social network, in order to make it easier to solve certain crimes.

    But is that okay? I think it certainly goes against the spirit of the 4th Amendment. That, if they have no reason to suspect you, then they should have no ability to search you. Even after you die.
    Reply
  • alextheblue
    20830484 said:
    The police often (always?) get involved, when someone dies - whether or not there's indication of a crime.

    And, when the article says "without probable cause", that's the point. So, what if police are collecting call & text history from phones of people who are even dead (or unconscious) from things like car accidents? It's not hard to imagine, if it's in an inner-city neighborhood, that they might want to build up a map of the social network, in order to make it easier to solve certain crimes.

    But is that okay? I think it certainly goes against the spirit of the 4th Amendment. That, if they have no reason to suspect you, then they should have no ability to search you. Even after you die.
    They often get involved to assess the possibility of a crime, cause of death, etc. They're not necessarily suspecting you, they may suspect you have information. Also I read the linked-to Forbes article this one referenced. Nowhere did they actually reveal a case where someone died of natural causes or an accident and the police did this. They have used them in cases of people dying of drug overdoses, trying to turn up information that might lead them to the dealer.

    Also, dead people don't have much in the way of legal rights. If you want to argue whether or not this is "OK" or whether they "should" have the ability to search that's a different matter. I have mixed feelings. But the article as written wants readers to believe they're currently doing this entirely without suspicion, and the source article doesn't really support that. Certainly not with any credible evidence. The closest it comes is this:

    But there are some anxieties around the ability of the police to turn up at a crime scene and immediately start accessing deceased individuals' cellphones without any need for permission. Greg Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said it's possible in many cases there would be a valid concern about law enforcement using fingerprints on smartphones without any probable cause.
    Armasu has embellished a bit as usual. Basically they're talking about their fear of yet-unproven "abuse" of the lack of legal protection for a deceased person's privacy. But even if this were the case, while I personally might not care for it... think about this. Let's go back pre-cellphones. If you were found dead of unknown cause, and had a locked box full of letters... did they need a warrant to take the key out of your hand and open it?
    Reply
  • USAFRet
    "Fingerprint authentication remains the safest biometric authentication solution"

    "safest" in a batch of exceedingly poor choices.

    That's like being the fastest in a race between a bunch of 3 legged horses.
    Reply
  • Olle P
    I'd say it's mostly a non issue.
    As stated, when it's done as part of a criminal investigation there's definitely "probable cause".
    If it's in response to an accident I see nothing wrong in looking at the contact list to find the ICE number.
    (ICE = In Case of Emergency, who to call when the phone owner has had an accident.)
    Reply
  • th3p00r
    The person is dead.
    Reply
  • WyomingKnott
    20831342 said:
    The person is dead.

    And most of the people s/he knows, and has private information about, are still alive.
    Reply
  • CerianK
    If laws were passed to prevent this behavior without a warrant (which might be a hassle to obtain routinely, since people happen to die fairly often), the likelihood of bodies being dug up to obtain a fingerprint increases when retrospect deems it necessary. Hmm... a possible new reason to consider cremation. Of course, the IMF would just create a fake print from personal objects or existing records to avoid the issue of obtaining an actual finger.
    Reply
  • bit_user
    20832629 said:
    ... Of course, the IMF would just create a fake print from personal objects or existing records ...
    The IMF?
    Reply