Is Your Cell Phone Password Safe From The Police?

Most Americans would tell you that they value their privacy.  To protect and serve, law enforcement is often required to invade that privacy.  Constant advancements in technology usually keep private citizens one step ahead of law enforcement.  However, several recent Federal Court decisions regarding the ability of law enforcement to compel private citizens to open their password protected cell phones, may cause people to rethink how they protect those devices from prying eyes.

In 2014 a Federal Court in Virginia ruled that law enforcement could compel an individual to open a cellular telephone protected by a fingerprint lock.  The Court distinguished fingerprint locks from a password stored in ones memory, reasoning that fingerprints are not any different than other items law enforcement already maintains the right to compel individuals to provide like DNA, fingerprints, or  handwriting samples.   Compelling someone to reveal a password stored in their brain however, would be the equivalent of compelling someone to testify against themselves, which the law does not allow.  Similarly in Texas and California, Federal Judges have ordered individuals to open telephones seized by the police in criminal investigations that were locked by fingerprint.  

Very recently a Federal Court in Pennsylvania refused to compel an individual to reveal his pass code to open his telephone.  The basis for this refusal was the protections provided by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (privilege against self incrimination)

It appears that the courts at the Federal level have drawn a distinction between fingerprints and pass codes with the former maintaining none of the Constitutional protections of the latter.  The United States Supreme Court will most likely have the final say on this issue.  Until then I will be using a pass code.

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