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Ruling could limit use of biometric data to unlock phones

Many people in Pennsylvania are concerned about the threat to personal privacy that can come with technological developments. This is especially true of people who are involved with the criminal justice system as an increasing amount of evidence involves material garnered from a defendant's mobile phone or social media. However, one ruling by a federal judge may recognize greater protections for some mobile content.

In the past, judges have ruled that police cannot compel a suspect to divulge an alphanumeric password or code to access the contents of a locked mobile phone. On the other hand, the use of biometric information, like an iris scan, facial recognition or a fingerprint, has been allowed in order for police to forcibly open a suspect's phone. Courts have held that divulging a passcode is forced testimony that violates a defendant's right against self-incrimination while a fingerprint or other biometric option were not considered to be "testimonial."

However, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has issued a ruling noting that the law must keep up with technology. The case involved a search warrant for a home belonging to suspects in an extortion case, and police wanted to use biometric evidence to open all of the phones in the house. However, the judge ruled that not only was the police search overbroad but that the use of biometric data to open the devices would be a form of prohibited forced self-incrimination.

While the ruling provides some hope for greater protections of mobile phone privacy, most attorneys would continue to advise the use of an alphanumeric lock code until the law is settled. When people are facing criminal charges or police questioning, a criminal defense lawyer can help people protect their rights, challenge police and prosecution assertions and present a strong defense.

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