When Apple announced in 2013 that its next iPhone would include a fingerprint reader, it touted the feature as a leap forward in security. Many people don’t set up a passcode on their phones, Apple SVP Phil Schiller said at the keynote event where the Touch ID sensor was unveiled, but making security easier and faster might convince more users to protect their phones. (Of course, Apple wasn’t the first to stuff a fingerprint reader into a flagship smartphone, but the iPhone’s Touch ID took the feature mainstream.)
The system itself proved quite secure—scanned fingerprints are stored, encrypted, and processed locally rather than being sent to Apple for verification—but the widespread use of fingerprint data to unlock iPhones worried some experts. One of the biggest questions that hung over the transition was legal rather than technical: How might a fingerprint-secured iPhone be treated in a court of law?
The question went unanswered for a year, until a Virginia judge ruled in 2014 that police can force users to unlock their smartphones with their fingerprints. But until this February, when a federal judge in Los Angeles signed a search warrant that required a woman to use her fingerprint to unlock her iPhone, it didn’t appear that any federal law-enforcement agency had ever used that power.
The iPhone belonged to Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan, the 29-year-old girlfriend of a man accused of being a member of an Armenian gang, according to Matt Hamilton and Richard Winton of the LA Times. She was sentenced in February for one count of identity theft, and just 45 minutes later, a federal judge signed a warrant authorizing law-enforcement officers to place her finger or thumb on the Touch ID sensor of her iPhone. It’s not clear what prosecutors are searching for on her phone.
The warrant was first discovered by Thomas Fox-Brewster of Forbes in March. Fox-Brewster examined “hundreds of court documents” but wasn’t able to find any previous example of a federal warrant for device-unlocking fingerprints.