US judge compels woman to provide fingerprint to open Apple iPhone

A court ordered an LA woman to provide authorities with a fingerprint to open her iPhone
A court ordered an LA woman to provide authorities with a fingerprint to open her iPhone

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) may have dropped its attempts to get Apple to crack a pair of iPhones obtained during two separate investigations, but the agency hasn't eased up its position in the battle over encryption.

The agency recently pushed for a 29-year-old Los Angeles woman to provide her fingerprint to open her phone after she was sentenced in an identity theft case.

Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan had already been sentenced in an identity theft case and whisked away to lock up, when the FBI sought a warrant in another California court for Bkhchadzhyan's fingerprint to open the phone – an agent took her print later that same day. Although the FBI wouldn't say why it wanted access to the phone, the woman is allegedly the girlfriend of Armenian Power gang member Sevak Mesrobian, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, which cited Assistant US Attorney Vicki Chou as saying the phone is part of an ongoing investigation.

The order sparked a debate as to whether the order was in violation of the Fifth Amendment which is part of the Bill of Rights and protects a person from having to be a witness against himself in a criminal trial. 

University of Dayton law professor Susan Brenner told the Times that the case "isn't about fingerprints and the biometric readers," but instead is about "the contents of that phone, much of which will be about her, and a lot of that could be incriminating". 

The Supreme Court was clear in a June 2014 decision barring warrantless search of cell phones, noting in the Riley v. California case that “modern cell phones are not just another technical convenience,” but a devices giving law enforcement access to far more information than other physical evidence carried on a person, such as a wallet or purse.

When federal authorities backed off of Apple in March – after the iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino shooters was cracked by a third party – and again in April – after another person provided the passcode for an iPhone at the centre of a drug investigation in Brooklyn – privacy advocates and security pros said the battle between the feds and tech companies over encryption was far from over.

"Unfortunately, this news appears to be just a delay of an inevitable fight over whether the FBI can force Apple to undermine the security of its own products. We would all be more secure if the government ended this reckless effort,” Alex Abdo, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a statement emailed to SCMagazine.com at the time.