Unlocking iPhones with Dead People's Fingerprints

It's routine for US police to unlock iPhones with the fingerprints of dead people. It seems only to work with recently dead people.

Posted on March 30, 2018 at 6:11 AM • 31 Comments

Comments

ChrisMarch 30, 2018 6:30 AM

There is a finite period of that which this is allowed. If a fingerprint isn’t used in 48 hrs, a password is then required.

FerriteCoreMarch 30, 2018 7:09 AM

What I think of this depends a lot on circumstances.

If the sole interest of the police is to solve a murder in which they have no other interest my main concern is the yuckiness and creepiness of the whole thing.

At the other extreme would be circumstances where it becomes convenient for somebodies fingers to become available, even if the police have nothing to do with the demise.

I am sure there are near infinite shadings between these extremes.

It will probably take decades for the case law to develop in the United States.

VinnyGMarch 30, 2018 9:30 AM

Could be an interesting 4th Amendment issue here (in spite of how badly USGov has shattered that right.)To whom does the body of the deceased belong? I don't know the legal answer to that, but I would expect that the answer would be next of kin and/or named heirs. I would further suspect that permission would be required from the nominal owner unless there was some sort of existing waiver language in the agreement with the mortuary/hospital/whatever (or possibly some language in the pertinent health insurance policy previously agreed to by the deceased.) I can't imagine that there isn't at least some rellated precedent, if not for the corpse, per se, for personal effects that might be on the person at time of death.

justinacolmenaMarch 30, 2018 9:46 AM

It's routine for US police to unlock iPhones with the fingerprints of dead people.

Dead? Unconscious or sleeping is more like it. Those cops are not keeping their pants zipped up.

Snarki, child of LokiMarch 30, 2018 11:57 AM

In general, dead people have no rights. No right of privacy, no right against self-incrimination, no right to sue for libel, etc.

But if someone inherits a dead person's "effects and papers (and iphone)", then that living person would be able to assert a right against police searches.

Extra fun hypothetical: a criminal defense lawyer dies, and it turns out that he keeps `privileged client information' on his phone. Can cops use the dead lawyer's fingerprint to search the phone? How about a minister with recordings of confessions?

HumdeeMarch 30, 2018 12:24 PM

i do not think it clear at all that the dead have no standing in court. After all, it is within the rule of law for the government to sue money all the time. So if money (a non-sentient entity) can be sued in court, why can't the dead (a non-sentient entity) in turn sue? Besides, it is common for the dead to have an estate and why can't the estate sue to assert a privacy right on the dead person's behalf?

My gut reaction is that the underlying problem is a practical one. By the time the estate or anyone else learns that the person is deceased the window in which the fingerprint is usable has likely closed anyway. But this can be solved via legislation.

David CornwellMarch 30, 2018 12:25 PM

How is this experiment performed? You ask for volunteers, kill them and then do the experiment? Seems you would not get many volunteers. Just saying.

AlejandroMarch 30, 2018 2:00 PM

Privacy and security advocates should summarily oppose all forms of biometric ID.

Of course, that won't do any good. And so, every kind of imaginable hack and crack will occur.

I could see it's a matter of time before, say facial ID, becomes the standard and all other forms of authentication are banned and made criminal.

echoMarch 30, 2018 3:04 PM

If the police mass exterminate everyone then there will be no crime. This is a win, right?

justinacolmenaMarch 30, 2018 3:51 PM

@Snarki, child of Loki

I am glad you are bringing these things out in a certain way.

In general, dead people have no rights. No right of privacy, no right against self-incrimination, no right to sue for libel, etc.
But if someone inherits a dead person's "effects and papers (and iphone)", then that living person would be able to assert a right against police searches.

Once again, is the person really dead, or does someone lust after that person's blood so much that he/she imagines that the person is dead already? In just such a way, my own family has justified depriving me of my basic human rights, year after year.

Extra fun hypothetical: a criminal defense lawyer dies, and it turns out that he keeps `privileged client information' on his phone. Can cops use the dead lawyer's fingerprint to search the phone? How about a minister with recordings of confessions?

These are the cops who aren't keeping their pants zipped up. Melatonin, insulin, whatever they use on their victims. The lawyers ain't dead yet either in these cases. Nor are the cops "officially" using the information they learn by illicitly spying on phones. For one thing it isn't even admissible in court. But when did that ever stop cops from aggressively gathering such evidence?

Ministers themselves don't usually keep recordings of confessions, nor are they "officially" aware or cognizant that such recordings are taking place, but once again, in this day and age of dirt cheap spy gear, let's not fool ourselves into believing that any sort of "confession" is actually private. When Satan is permitted to listen in to the confession, then all pretense of religion is lost.

I can go on and on about this, but the bottom line is that people who deal dope, meddle in others' affairs, and refuse to mind their own business are not long for this world, law or no law, cops or no cops, court or no court.

Clive RobinsonMarch 30, 2018 4:36 PM

@ justinacolmena,

I can go on and on about this, but the bottom line is that people who deal dope, meddle in others' affairs, and refuse to mind their own business are not long for this world, law or no law, cops or no cops, court or no court.

Which describes vigilanty behaviour and it's ills.

History shows that such behaviour is not just arbitary and unjust it actually harms society greatly in the process.

It is a form of "led" mob rule, exploited by the worst form of of humans. It requires authoritarian followers who just "follow orders" or even whims of the leader.

At it's base is usually a forn of tribalism that expresses it's self as discrimination in all it's inglorious forms, made worse by known falshoods spoken as sly innuendo, gossip and whispers to poison the minds of others against a chosen target or group.

To understand why the leaders are the worst form of humans in this respect consider the basic types of racist,

1, Those who for no reason discriminate against an obviously different group.

2, Those who have suffered at the hands of one or two of an obviously different group and now regard all members of that group as being the same as the original antagonists.

3, Those who seek to make profit / capital from others by exploiting an obviously different group by various means.

A look at the behaviours in Europe from the end of WWI through to current times shows a century of behaviour of people who fall into the third group, resulting in many millions of deaths etc, for in many cases personal or political power. In the centuries before that it was various religious leaders again for mainly political gain or personal power. We still see it today in behaviours on the Internet.

People are necessarily different in many ways, as it is a species survial trait. Look at it this way if we were all the same, the first bug that kills me would kill you. Such differences are often called "hybrid vigour" and it's absolutly essential to species diversification thus survival ability. The opposit to diversification is "inbreeding" which we know gives rise to all sorts of issues in terms of genetic disorders. It also can be shown to be not just a physical health issue but a mental health one as well.

Selfish GeneMarch 30, 2018 5:25 PM

@Clive,
I have to pick bones with one of your comments "People are necessarily different in many ways, as it is a species survial [sic] trait..." As Richard Dawkins so famously reasoned in his "The Selfish Gene" book, we are all survival machines for genes. Only that humans have the evolved ability to rebel against pre-programmed long-range control by genes. If only we can pick and choose when and where to use that ability better!

If group survival is the driver (of evolution, of diversity), species being an example of a large enough 'group', one would not expect wars, exploitation of races, nationalities, religious believes, xenophobia, crusades, all the way down to a village exterminating the next for . Diversity happens as the result of natural evolution, because that's how a gene or collection/group of cooperating genes survives to the next generation. There is no grand design.

65535March 30, 2018 5:27 PM

@ FerriteCore

“…the yuckiness and creepiness of the whole thing.”

Yes, it is very creepy.

@ VinnyG

“…an interesting 4th Amendment issue here (in spite of how badly USGov has shattered that right.)To whom does the body of the deceased belong? I don't know the legal answer to that, but I would expect that the answer would be next of kin and/or named heirs. I would further suspect that permission would be required from the nominal owner…”

That is an interesting question. There are laws dealing with grave robbing, handling of dead bodies and privacy of the dead person’s family. I wonder about this legal question.

@ Snarki, child of Loki

“…a criminal defense lawyer dies, and it turns out that he keeps `privileged client information' on his phone. Can cops use the dead lawyer's fingerprint to search the phone?”

Hum, say is lawyer is driving to deliver the phone to an expert witness and is killed in a crash, could the cops legally unlock the phone? Good question.

@ Clive Robinson

“… form of "led" mob rule, exploited by the worst form of of humans. It requires authoritarian followers who just "follow orders" or even whims of the leader. At it's base is usually a forn of tribalism that expresses it's self as discrimination in all it's inglorious forms, made worse by known falshoods spoken as sly innuendo, gossip and whispers to poison the minds of others against a chosen target or group.”

Yes, that is exploit at best and horrible at worst.

Excuse all of the mistakes. I am not at my best.


EvilKiruMarch 30, 2018 8:09 PM

Based on TV detective shows, I'm thinking the body legally belongs to the county coroner's office until it's released for disposal following the autopsy, if any (and we all know that TV shows aren't exactly paragons of virtue when it comes to accurately portraying the real world).

Snarki, child of LokiMarch 30, 2018 9:54 PM

"Besides, it is common for the dead to have an estate and why can't the estate sue to assert a privacy right on the dead person's behalf?"

Estates (and governments) are more akin to 'corporate entities' than actual people.

So not "not alive" so much as "undead".

If you're going up against them, it's a good idea to have Buffy the Vampire Slayer on speed-dial.

65535April 1, 2018 2:45 PM

@ EvilKiru and Snarki, child of Loki

This aspect of the law is quite complex and will probably have to be revisited by courts. It is generally expected that a “death certificate” is need to bury a person.

In some jurisdictions a doctor can sign a death certificate if it is a natural death and in others all bodies go to the coroner’s office for determination of foul play by even proor medical practices.

Death Certificate:

“Each governmental jurisdiction prescribes the form of the document for use in its preview and the procedures necessary to legally produce it. One purpose of the certificate is to review the cause of death to determine if foul-play occurred as it can rule out an accidental death or a murder going by the findings and ruling of the medical examiner… Before issuing a death certificate, the authorities usually require a certificate from a physician or coroner to validate the cause of death and the identity of the deceased… some jurisdictions, a police officer or a paramedic may be allowed to sign a death certificate under specific circumstances. This is usually when the cause of death seems obvious and no foul play is suspected, such as in extreme old age. In such cases, an autopsy is rarely performed.” -wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_certificate

'What are the rights of dead people?’

“Two mains areas of the law apply to dead people: 1) disposal of bodies; and 2) crimes committed against dead bodies. In both cases, the laws are a tangle of competing rights, often pitting the wishes of the deceased against the wishes of their survivors against the police powers of the state.”-Slate

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2002/03/habeas_corpses.html

§ 401.190 Deceased persons.

“We do not consider the disclosure of information about a deceased person to be a clearly unwarranted invasion of that person's privacy. However, in disclosing information about a deceased person, we follow the principles in § 401.115 to insure that the privacy rights of a living person are not violated. –Cornell Law school.}-Cornell edu

https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/20/401.190

It is generally expected that a “death certificate” is need to bury or cremate a body – hopefully after ensuring death. Most people don’t want to be buried alive. The definition of death is fairly well settled after the 1960 and 1970’s problem of keeping brain dead people alive on life support only to watch rigor mortis set in at the limbs.

“…rigor mortis is the process in which a body stiffens after death. During this process, all the muscles in the body contract, and they do not relax for approximately 36 hours.

https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigor_mortis

The coroner can be a doctor but doesn’t have to be and can use “medical examiners” and can hold a coroner’s inquest or coroner’s jury. The coroner can be elected by the people. the coroner may adjudge the cause of death personally, or may act as the presiding officer of a special court (a "coroner's jury").

also see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coroner

medical examiner:

“…some jurisdictions, a coroner performs these and other duties. It’s not uncommon for a medical examiner to visit crime scenes or to testify in court.[3] This takes a certain amount of confidence in which the medical examiner has to rely on their expertise to make a true testimony and accurately testify the facts of their findings.[3] Medical examiners specialize in forensic knowledge and rely on this during their work.[2] In addition to studying cadavers, they are also trained in toxicology, DNA technology and forensic serology (blood analysis).”- wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_examiner

lastly we get to the “No Murder Scene Exception to the 4th Amendment”

“To summarize, a murderer is still entitled to a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” So, while the police may make warrantless entries if they reasonably believe a person needs immediate aid and may make a protective sweep, a search is not constitutionally permissible simply because a homicide has recently occurred on the premises.”- RLS law.

https://www.rlslawyers.com/no-murder-scene-exception-to-the-4th-amendment/

This would seem to settle the matter. But, it is a collection of cases where holes can be found.

Since this legal question about unlocking dead suspects cell phones via finger prints [which means the suspect cannon defend himself] is being done yet in a vile way I will say consumer protection should be envoked when using biometric IDs to unlock phones.

Original comment:

“It’s remote but possible a cop may think you are a drug dealer, shoot you and use your dead finger or face to unlock your phone in hopes of finding some remote evidence you were a drug dealer. That is unlikely. But, criminals could do the same in hopes of gaining your banking credentials to empty your bank account. This may or may not work but could be a lucrative gamble. Soon or later this or any per mutation of the crime will probably happen. Beware of using finger prints or facial recognition to unlock your cell phone if you bank via your cell phone.”

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2018/03/facebook_and_ca.html#c6773142

In short, if a consumer gets his finger chopped off by a criminal trying to unlock his/her cell phone Consumer Protection laws should at least warn consumers of the danger. The same goes if a consumer is murdered for his biometric facial ID to unlock his cell phone.


Excuse all the mistakes.

VinnyGApril 1, 2018 2:58 PM

@Sad Man re: purloining DNA - While I am as concerned about the encroachment of the State upon my rights, property, and liberties as just about anyone you will find, the case you cited hardly supports your argument. Municipal and county coroners have long been responsible for making an effort to identify anyone who dies within their jurisdiction under conditions that are at all questionable. That would clearly include the suicide of a stranger at a local motel. The fact that after a decade, the only identification made has been of a probable locale of ancestry suggests that the ubiquitous surveillance state, as frightening a prospect as it is, may yet remain quite some distance from realization. I find that more encouraging than discouraging. The moral I take from this story is that if you want to off yourself anonymously, and don't want any official prying into your identity, affairs, or ancestry, post mortem, have the sense to do the act at some remote venue where your remains are likely to rot long before thsy are discovered, not in a freaking motel room...

LizApril 2, 2018 11:05 AM

So, that old saw that 'two people can share a secret as long as one of them is dead' is no longer true.

SlagApril 2, 2018 2:47 PM

In terms of ownership of the dead and of DNA, there have been cases where spouses have attempted to lay claim to DNA for reproductive purposes. Supposedly sperm can survive for 48 hours, and usually the courts took longer than that to decide who owned the body.

meApril 3, 2018 3:30 AM

It works only for short time and simple fingerprint scanners. Advanced (and significantly larger and more expensive) scanners can detect dead or fake fingers and palms.

PerApril 4, 2018 7:38 AM

I think this screams for personal rights extending beyond life. We already have copyrights that live on for decades past death, and so should all the personal rights, including ownership of DNA, fingerprints and so on.

It should actually be a requirement that all biometric verification tools should verify as much as technically possible that the person checked is alive. No more yanked eyeballs, chopped-off fingers etc. as we often see in the movies.

AnselmApril 4, 2018 11:44 AM

I would hate to be the person who gets to debug the “is this finger attached to a live person?” part of the fingerprint scanner firmware. To say nothing of the “is this eyeball attached to a live person?” part of the retina scanner firmware. Especially the negative case. Yuck.

D-503April 6, 2018 9:52 PM

“is this finger attached to a live person?”
pink = yes
grey = probably not
(fancier version: pink shade varies with pressure = yes)

“is this eyeball attached to a live person?”
pupillary reflex in response to light = yes
no pupillary reflex in response to light = probably not

Both are easily measured by the sensors already in place, so all that's needed is to add a couple of lines to the software.
Both tests can be subverted by a resourceful attacker, but in such a case no mutilation is needed anyway. As @hmm pointed out, all a sophisticated attacker needs is a high-resolution photo of the target's hand or face.

Clive RobinsonApril 7, 2018 4:10 PM

@ D-503,

Both are easily measured by the sensors already in place...

As is your pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation sufficiently to tell if you are breathing and how fast...

In years past I have whilst lying on a hospital bed thought about how they could be used as an anti-duress signal so the phone only half unlocked etc.

However I can not see Apple or anyone else pitting in the required code. Firstly because it would just act as a "lightning magnet" for the DoJ / FBI to waste lots of tax payers money. But secondly and perhaps more importantly would be what it would do to "Suport call costs".

DroneApril 10, 2018 11:08 AM

I carry a pair of pruning shears for times I need to "borrow" a stranger's phone. It works perfectly almost every time, except for when I run up against a phone with face recognition - then things get pretty messy.

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