A new report by Forbes has revealed that it’s a rather common practice for law enforcement agencies to use the fingers of deceased suspects to attempt to unlock their iPhones. In the report, FBI forensics specialist Bob Moledor outlined a 2016 case where an agent used the finger of a suspect who had been shot by police following a stabbing rampage to attempt to unlock an iPhone found on the deceased. While Moledor added that this particular attempt didn’t work — the report speculates it may have been an iPhone 5 rather than an iPhone 5s — it was the first known case of law enforcement officials attempting to use a deceased person’s finger to unlock an iPhone using Touch ID.
The iPhone in this particular case was later sent to a forensics lab, where at least some useful information was successfully retrieved, however the legal processes of gaining access to the smartphone took several hours, at which point the iPhone had gone to sleep and required a passcode when restarted. However, while this attempt failed, the Forbes report goes on to cite additional sources from police investigations in New York and Ohio who have said that it’s now “relatively common” for fingerprints of the deceased to be applied to the Touch ID scanner on Apple iPhones almost immediately when bodies are found in order to avoid later problems with accessing data. One source noted that the technique has been regularly used in overdose cases to search victim’s phones for information leading to drug dealers.
Regardless of moral ethical considerations, it seems that under current U.S. law, it is entirely legal for police to use this technique, with legal experts pointing out that deceased persons “no longer have a privacy interest in their dead body.” In addition, relatives and other interested parties have no right to claim privacy over data that they have shared with friends and family members. Further, while police have required warrants to use the fingerprints of living persons on their iPhones, there appears to be no requirement for search warrants to get into a deceased victim’s iPhone unless it’s “shared owned,” according to Ohio police homicide detective Robert Cutshall. Privacy advocates have naturally expressed concern about this, citing issues such as using fingerprints on iPhones for “fishing expeditions” without probably cause, and emphasizing that warrants should be required, but for now at least it appears that current case law lands on the side of law enforcement.