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iPhone Fingerprint Scanner Raises Privacy and Criminal Justice Concerns

Brian J Smith Feb. 20, 2014

Apple’s iPhone 5S, with its elegantly designed Touch ID fingerprint scanner, has been an undeniable hit with consumers and paved the way for other companies, such as Samsung, to incorporate similar biometric technologies into their upcoming smartphones. Apple bills its scanner as a safe, convenient security feature, allowing users to protect their phones and data without the hassles and security vulnerabilities associated with traditional passwords. Privacy and security experts, however, warn that the iPhone’s biometric technology creates more problems than it solves.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Ozawa

Biometric security technologies digitally identify individuals based upon physical characteristics, such as fingerprints, retinas, and facial features, which, unlike traditional passwords, cannot easily be changed. Apple’s Touch ID feature invites users to scan their fingerprints into their iPhones, creating a digital file that the phones then use to identify them. Activating the Touch ID feature allows users to unlock their devices with a simple touch, as well as download media and apps from iTunes quickly and easily. The feature may seem to provide iPhone owners with a simple, fail-safe method for protecting their devices and data from thieves and other unauthorized users. Experts, however, argue that creating and storing fingerprint data on mobile devices opens the door for massive security and privacy violations.

Some critics have highlighted the potential for hackers to gain access to the iPhone’s fingerprint files. Armed with user data that cannot be altered, these digital thieves could wreak a lifetime’s worth of havoc for victims.

Other critics have raised concerns about corporate access to biometric information. While Apple has issued assurances that the iPhone’s fingerprint data files are stores only on phones and never uploaded to Apple’s servers or made accessible to phone companies, experts remain skeptical about how securely the files are stored, as well as how long it will take for corporations to change their privacy policies.

If phone companies were to keep customers’ fingerprint data, law enforcement would be able to obtain it simply by subpoenaing suspects’ phone records during criminal investigations. Citizens who already have fingerprints on file with the government could then easily be identified.

Marcia Hoffman argued, in a recent article, that, even if fingerprint data remains stored on phones, users still risk privacy violations in both civil and criminal legal proceedings because of differences in the way the law handles biometric and password information. The Fifth Amendment grants citizens the right to choose not to reveal information about themselves through testimony that might incriminate them in court. This means that a police officer or a civil court judge cannot compel a citizen to disclose, for example, the combination to a safe or the password to a mobile device. Biometric data, however, is considered physical evidence by the legal system, and physical evidence, unlike personal testimony, can be obtained from suspects and used against them without violating the Fifth Amendment. A police officer could, in theory, obtain an individual’s fingerprint from government records or during the arrest process, unlock their phone, and collect detailed information about their activities.

While worry continues to mount about mobile biometric technologies, consumers continue to buy products that employ them, and it appears they’re likely here to stay. As technology advanced, the criminal justice system struggles to catch up.Working with an experienced, knowledgeable attorney who understands your rights is your best chance to build a successful case.

If you are facing criminal charges, contact the law office of Brian J. Smith at (702) 380-8248 today.

Featured image courtesy of OpenClips

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