FBI agents and local cops in the US are using the fingerprints of dead people to access their iPhones and smartphones, according to a new report by Forbes.
One of the first known instances of this was reportedly on the smartphone of Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who carried out a hit-and-run attack followed by a stabbing spree at Ohio State University in November 2016. After he was shot dead by local law enforcement, investigators attempted to access his encrypted iPhone by physically pressing his finger to Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint-recognition feature.
Their attempts were not successful in the end, however, there have been similar reports that the FBI might have used the thumbprint of deceased gunman Devin Kelley, who killed 25 people in a Texas church last year, to piece together his motives and final few hours.
Despite these claims, some experts have previously disagreed on whether a dead person’s fingerprint would even be able to unlock a phone. Some fingerprint-enabled devices use “capacitive touch”, which relies on the minute electrical properties of the human body. If a person is dead, it wouldn’t work. However, not all devices use this type of technology.
"It is certainly possible to authenticate with biometrics even without user consent, or the person even being alive," John Whaley, co-founder and CEO of UnifyID, told Mashable in 2017. "This is especially true if the factor they use is static, like a fingerprint or a face. One attempt to combat this is to use a liveness check, but even those are often easily spoofable."
Anonymous sources also revealed that this method of accessing a deceased suspect’s smartphone is “relatively common” among local and federal police investigations. Although morally questionable, it’s legal and doesn’t always require a warrant.
The use of police warrants to unlock smartphones continues to be a fiery topic of debate between tech giants and the law. In 2016, Apple and the FBI tussled over the right to access data from the iPhone of the San Bernardino gunman.
When it comes to using the fingerprints of living suspects to access a smartphone, the legality is even hazier. Sometimes police are granted warrants that allow them to open people’s phones with the owner’s fingerprints, but at other times, the warrants are denied.
However, it appears that the process is a lot easier if the suspect is dead: “We do not need a search warrant to get into a victim’s phone, unless it’s shared owned,” Ohio police homicide detective Robert Cutshall told Forbes.