WN Law PLLC

Cellphone security rules may change for police

For many people concerned with privacy in Michigan, it is important to use a passcode or phrase to unlock a mobile phone rather than the newer fingerprint and face recognition technologies. While some people are simply uncomfortable with storing their personal data in a potential corporate database, many others have been convinced by multiple federal court rulings. Over the years, several courts have given much higher protections to data protected with an alphanumeric passcode rather than with biometric safety features. Law enforcement agencies have generally been allowed to use fingerprints or facial features to unlock devices without the owner's consent.

On the other hand, mobile phone owners cannot be compelled to disclose their passcodes or passwords due to the constitutional protection against self-incrimination. Therefore, people concerned with dealings with law enforcement may be particularly inclined to rely on a passcode instead. However, one federal judge's ruling could point the way to higher protections for biometric security features. The judge ruled that police could not use biometric features to unlock mobile phones when they sought a search warrant for a suspect's home. The case involved alleged extortion being conducted over the internet, and police wanted to use biometrics to unlock any phones in the searched home.

The judge noted that the police application was excessively broad but also said that the law must catch up with technology. She said that there was no real distinction between passcodes and biometrics, and both types of forced unlocking can violate the prohibition on compelled self-incrimination.

It may take some time before this ruling becomes settled law, so relying on passcodes may remain the safer option. People facing questioning by police are often unaware of their rights, so a criminal defense attorney may help them protect themselves when questioned. An attorney may also help develop a strong challenge to police allegations.

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