While some observers hailed Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) new Touch ID fingerprint scanner as a secure and convenient authentication system, others raised privacy concerns about a mobile device that reads and stores people’s fingerprints. Apple moved quickly to allay those concerns by pointing out that images of users’ fingerprints will be in an encrypted form and will only be stored in a secure sub-section of the A7 chip.
However, a new report from Wired’s Marcia Hofmann notes that there are also legal ramifications to Apple’s fingerprint scanner. She points out that a biometric authentication system may actually weaken users’ Fifth Amendment protection.
One of the protections guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment is that, “No person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Hofmann notes that this protection extends to “memory-based passwords and PINs” that are typically used secure mobile devices.
Since a person is protected from self-incrimination, the government cannot compel someone to divulge a memory-based password that unlocks a device with potentially incriminating evidence. Hofmann notes that, under the law, compelling a person to divulge a password would be considered the same as compelling them to testify against themselves.
However, the courts have already determined that information such as fingerprints and DNA samples are not covered by the Fifth Amendment since biometric information is not “testimonial.” This means that an iPhone 5S owner that uses Apple’s Touch ID system could be forced to unlock their device by the government. However, if the device is locked with a memory-based passcode, the government cannot compel a person to divulge that information.
Hofmann notes that one possible solution would be to couple the fingerprint authentication with a memory-based password. On the other hand, this would seem to defeat the convenience aspect of Apple’s Touch ID system.
Although Apple’s Touch ID system doesn’t require an alphanumeric passcode every time that a user unlocks a device, it does include several safeguards. Users must create a traditional passcode when they first activate the Touch ID system. If the iPhone 5S is rebooted or is not activated for over 48 hours, the device requires the additional passcode and the fingerprint before it will unlock again.
Apple’s iPhone 5S that features the new fingerprint-enabled Touch ID authentication system hits store shelves on September 20. Here’s how Apple closed out the trading week.
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