Court rules cops can demand fingerprints, not passcodes, to unlock smartphones

If police suspect that you've committed a crime, the odds are pretty good that they'll want to search your smartphone for evidence. Whether they can actually search your phone depends on the security method you've picked--if any--to protect the device. Use Touch ID? Turn over those fingerprints. Have a passcode? You're home-free.

A Virginia Circuit Court decided this week that cops can't make you cough up your smartphone passcode because it violates the 5th Amendment, which bars the state from forcing you to incriminate yourself. Fingerprints are a different story, The Virginian-Pilot reported. They're similar to DNA and handwriting, Judge Steven Frucci ruled.

The decision was handed down in the case of a Virginia man accused of attempting to kill his girlfriend after a fight. Police suspected the man recorded the argument on his phone and wanted to use the video as evidence during trial. According to The Virginian-Pilot report, it's unclear whether the phone in question requires a passcode or fingerprint to unlock it. If the phone uses both security measures, the ruling against forced passcode disclosures still applies.

Why this matters: Just as police were able to tap into smartphones and the treasure trove of data they capture, manufacturers are baking in security measures that cops can't bypass. When Apple released iOS 8, the company said new privacy improvements tie your information to your passcode. Apple can't hand over any information stored on your device to law enforcement, even with a warrant, because it's technically impossible to access data protected by a passcode. Now that cops can't force you to hand over that passcode--at least in Virginia District Court--your information is doubly protected.

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