Judge Blocks FBI From Forcing Fingerprints From Targets To Unlock IPhones

In the latest skirmish over privacy in the cellphone age, a federal judge in Chicago has rejected a law enforcement request to force potential targets in an ongoing investigation to provide fingerprints to unlock any iPhones or other Apple devices.

The order by U.S. Magistrate Judge David Weisman concerned a request for a warrant to search a residence where investigators believed someone was using the internet to traffic images of child pornography, court records show.

The prosecution filing seeking the search warrant on the FBI’s behalf remains under seal, but the judge’s opinion said the government requested “the authority to compel any individual who is present at the subject premises at the time of the search” to provide a fingerprint or thumbprint needed to unlock an Apple device.

Weisman, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, wrote in his 14-page opinion last month that the government hadn’t presented enough facts in its application that would justify such sweeping “intrusions,” including any specific information about those who might be living at the residence or their connection to the child pornography investigation.

He also called out prosecutors over what he called the dated boilerplate language often seen in search warrant affidavits dealing with technological issues, from referring to a Blackberry as a “Personal Digital Assistant” to suggesting that most people still use cables to download information.

Weisman’s ruling comes a year after the high-profile battle between Apple and the FBI over the encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attackers who killed 14 people and seriously wounded 22 others in 2015.

That dispute was resolved after the FBI was able to hack into the phone without Apple’s help.

But experts say the debate over where to draw the line between privacy and investigative interests has lingered, particularly as law enforcement agencies across the country are searching to bypass the relatively new technology of fingerprint readers and other encryption built into many cellphones.

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