Privacy and Security

Police Use 3D Technology to Access a Smartphone

Researchers use 3D Printed Fingerprints in Attempt to Access Murder Victim’s Smartphone

A law enforcement agency in Michigan has figured out how to use 3D printing to unlock a deceased man’s smart phone.

Police believe that the man, a murder victim, had information on his phone that could help to investigate his death. They asked researchers at Michigan State University to help craft a way for them to access the phone using the victim’s fingerprints. The researchers printed the fingerprints on a 3D printer and coated them with metallic particles, which would allow the phone’s fingerprint scanner to read them.

There are two facts distinguishing this case from most other investigations where law enforcement agencies seek access to smartphones: the phone belonged to the victim; and this is a case of murder. Since the phone belongs to the victim there is, rightly so, a greater degree of public sympathy. Additionally, since the victim is deceased, certain Constitutional expectations—such as privacy—do not apply.

The future applications of the technology are alarming. Certainly law enforcement agencies would transition applications from deceased victims to live suspects. Law enforcement agencies would no longer need a suspect to be present, assuming they have the suspect’s fingerprints on file, to access smartphones or any other devices locked using biometrics.

The Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies must get a warrant before searching a suspect’s phone. The 3D printing of fingerprints does not change this ruling. The technology, though, does provide law enforcement easier access to information by bypassing the need to force suspects themselves to unlock smartphones.

Several courts have ruled that police can access smartphones using biometric information, as biometric information is not protected by the Fifth Amendment. Simultaneously, courts have ruled that police may not compel suspects to provide their passcodes. Compelled disclosure of passcodes or passwords would violate the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination.

Security researcher Bryan Choi argues that:

“Phones should be considered extensions of our minds and should be protected under the Fifth Amendment (protection against self-incrimination) and not just the Fourth Amendment (protection against illegal search and seizure). He argues that cell phones are unlike almost anything else we own.

“‘We offload so many of our personal thoughts, moments, tics, and habits to our cellphones… Having those contents aired in court feels like having your innermost thoughts extracted and spilled unwillingly in public.’”

Security and privacy begin with the smartphone user. The temporary solution to this problem is rather simple: smartphone owners should disable biometric access, encrypt their phones (if not encrypted by default), and use only passcodes or passwords.

In Depth: Privacy and Security

A market environment is essential for future success of the Internet. A consumer and private-sector-driven approach to privacy via self-regulation avoids undue regulatory burden that would threaten a thriving electronic marketplace. The Internet has flourished due in large part to the unregulated environment in which it has developed and grown.

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