According to Forbes, which spoke with sources close to local and federal investigations, it’s becoming standard operating procedure for cops to use dead people’s fingerprints to unlock their Apple iPhones.
FBI forensic specialist Bob Moledor detailed for Forbes the first known instance of law enforcement making such an attempt, during an investigation into the motives of an attacker killed by Ohio police back in 2016.
Seven hours after Abdul Razak Ali Artan was shot to death by officers, Moledor says, an FBI agent applied Artan’s index finger to his iPhone screen. The attempt to bypass security failed, and the device had to be sent to a forensics lab.
But other attempts have been successful, sources told Forbes. In fact, the outlet reports that these sources say it’s “now relatively common for fingerprints of the deceased to be depressed on the scanner of Apple iPhones.”
One source gave the example of police using the tactic to unlock an overdose victim’s phone in the hopes it contained information about the dead person’s dealer.
And it’s all perfectly legal. Marina Medvin, who owns a law firm, told Forbes that once a person dies they no longer have a privacy interest in their corpse. Friends and family of the deceased are also out of luck, Medvin says:
“Once you share information with someone, you lose control over how that information is protected and used. You cannot assert your privacy rights when your friend’s phone is searched and the police see the messages that you sent to your friend. Same goes for sharing information with the deceased — after you released information to the deceased, you have lost control of privacy.”
It seems this fact is very much known to law enforcement. “We do not need a search warrant to get into a victim’s phone, unless it’s shared owned,” homicide detective Robert Cutshall, who worked on the Artan case, told Forbes.
But that doesn’t mean everyone is fine with the practice. Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the outlet that in many of these cases there exists “valid concern” over cops using the tactic without probable cause.
“That’s why the idea of requiring a warrant isn’t out of bounds,” Nojeim said.
Indeed, the legality of such methods is an issue that might soon need to be more directly examined, as it’s being shown that newer Apple iPhones’ facial recognition software can be fooled without the use of a living person.
The FBI’s Moledor told Forbes he doesn’t think law enforcement has tried this on a corpse yet, but that if and when it does, then legally “it’s probably going to be same as using the fingerprint.”