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Florida police attempt to use dead man's finger to unlock his smartphone

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Florida police have reportedly attempted to unlock a dead man's smartphone using his fingerprint, an act that reflects an ethical dilemma for the modern age concerning biometric security for mobile devices.

Linus F. Phillip died in March; according to the Tampa Bay Times, he was shot by police while attempting to flee a Wawa gas station in Largo, Fla. A WFLA account of the incident stated that the officer fired the fatal shots while Phillip was attempting to drag him with his car.

Not long after the death, police showed up at the funeral home where the body of Phillip was taken, and attempted to use the dead man's finger to unlock the device. The attempts were unsuccessful.

The Times story says the purpose of the unlocking was to obtain data in relation to the investigation into the 30-year-old Phillip's death, as well as for "a separate inquiry into drugs."

None of the reporting concerning the case states what type of smartphone is at issue. The iPhone is the most widely-adopted phone that features fingerprint-unlocking technology, but others on the market do offer similar biometric security, including models from Google's Pixel and Samsung's Galaxy lines.

Touch ID allows for five unsuccessful fingerprint match attempts before requiring the use of a password, while Android devices have their own limitations regarding the number of available attempts. It is also unknown if there was a problem in attempting to read the fingerprint, or if too much time had passed before the attempts were made and the device demanded a passcode.

"So disrespected and violated"

Phillip's family is unhappy that the police took this step. Fiancé Victoria Armstrong, who was at the funeral home when police arrived, told the newspaper that she "just felt so disrespected and violated."

Using the body of a deceased person to unlock a phone may be considered ghoulish, even if it doesn't happen with their surviving relatives present — and even if it's not done by the same law enforcement entity that was involved in the person's death. Even so, new as these legal questions about the practice are, the practice is almost certainly legal.

Unlocking precedent

Legal experts agree that a warrant is not needed in the event that the subject is deceased, but the ethics of the situation are another matter. These issues have repeatedly come up ever since this type of technology was first introduced.

The most famous case is that of the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015. That case didn't involve using a corpse's fingerprint, but it did entail the FBI seeking Apple's help in unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the accused attackers. The bureau ultimately failed to force Apple's assistance in the matter, but did gain access to the device using a third-party unlock procedure.

More recently, the FBI in late 2016 attempted to unlock an iPhone 5s belonging to Ohio State University attacker Abdul Razak Ali Artan. It's unclear whether law enforcement has ever attempted to use the iPhone X's Face ID technology in this manner.

A relatively inexpensive iPhone-unlocking tool called GrayKey is currently in use by police departments nationwide as well as various departments of the federal government. Another company called Cellebrite offers similar promises to gain access to files stored on an iPhone.