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Bad Cop Blotter

Want to Keep the Cops Out of Your Phone? A Fingerprint Scanner Won't Help

Law enforcement agents can make you swipe a finger to unlock your cell phone, but old-school passwords still offer some measure of privacy.
November 3, 2014, 6:02pm
Finger scan technology doesn't protect you from a police search. Photo via Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns

On Tuesday, Virginia Circui​t Court J​u​dg​e Steven C. Frucci ruled that police could force a domestic abuse suspect to unlock his iPhone with a fingerprint scan. First offered to the public last year, the idea behind this nifty locking technology is that it will make it harder for people to break into your phone and look through all your stuff. Except it turns out it won't keep the cops from snooping if you're charged with a crime.

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​Motherboard reported last year that there are some troubling connections between AuthenTec, the firm that makes the fingerprint-scanning tech, and its parent company, the Harris Corporation, which manufactures Stingray electronic surveillance devices and has cozy ties with law enforcement. As biometric scanning becomes a reality, it's becoming easier for the authorities to monitor us (just look at the FBI's ​massive facial recognition database), but nobody is putting up much of a fuss. Not when we can buy Apple products with the swipe of a finger, anyway.

Still, this ruling is the first solid sign that such technology--t​out​ed as a way to secure your de​vic​es--might also be doing law enforcement's work for them.

Per the ruling, David Baust--who denied police access to his phone on Fifth Amendment grounds after being arrested for allegedly attempting to strangle his girlfriend--could indeed be ordered to access his phone with a thumb scan. It would not qualify as compelled self-incrimination, the judge ruled, because the scan is equivalent to taking a DNA sample or an actual key, rather than divulging information. However, the judge added that the police can't require that a suspect share his password with them, which means Baust's info will still remain secret as he also has a passcode on his phone. Law enforcement can make him swipe, but they cannot yet make him type.

Here are this week's bad cops:

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-Another day, another early-morning SWAT operation that led to a dead law enforcement officer. On Tuesday, police in Lo​s ​Angeles raided the home of David Martinez, who is reportedly a member of a motorcycle gang. Martinez allegedly somehow managed to shoot Pomona police officer Shaun Diamond in the back of the head, killing him. Martinez is now likely to be charged with capital murder.

-On Friday, the Albuquerque Police Department finally hammered out a deal with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to fix some of their many problems. The APD--one of the worst police departments in th​e cou​ntry--has been harshly criticized by both the DOJ and the public during the last year, not least because footage emerged showing several officers fatally shooting a mental​ly ill homeless​ man. The reforms, which must be put into place sometime in the next four years, include independent oversight of the APD, new training measures, and other things that will hopefully reduce the number of fatal shootings committed by the department.

-Ridiculous Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio ap​pointed Mike Zullo, the head of the "Cold Case ​Posse" as the point man in Arpaio's epic search for the truth about President Barack Obama's country of birth. On Wednesday, Zullo admitted that he accepted a $10,000 bribe from a "source" in the birther movement. Is there no actual crime in Maricopa County? Jesus Christ almighty.

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-A Techdirt h​e​a​dline sums it up: "Vermont's Automatic License Plate Readers: 7.9 Million Plates Captured, Five Crimes Solved." That seems like an expensive, intrusive system with almost no tangible positive effects. Why bother with it except to get a better sense of the movements of millions of innocent people?

-Remember when the Federal Aviation Administration put a no-fly zone over Ferguson, Missouri, at the peak of the Michael Brown shooting protests? Well, the Associated Press used some Freedom of Information Act Requests to con​firm th​at it was all an excuse to ban media helicopters from the area. Reports of unconfirmed persons using a police helicopter for target practice seem to have been only rumors. No police reports nor evidence of a damaged copter were found. Paranoia is awareness, I guess.

-Check out recently released video of two​​ classy Austin cops having a conversation in May that was recorded by dash-cam. The talk included mocking of theft victims who "probably deserved it." And then in reference to a hot woman, "Go ahead, call the cops, they can't un-rape you." The other officer's first response was not, "Dude, that's so unprofessional!" but, "You didn't turn your camera off, did you?" You can make as many racist or rapey jokes as you want in your private life, but if you're a cop, this kind of attitude should be made public. An internal investigation is looking into the incident.

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-Speaking of creepy cops, on Wednesday, former​ ​Ohio St​ate Trooper Bryan Lee pled guilty to four different civil rights violations and one count of cyberstalking relating to his previous habit of coercing women into sex in exchange for him not pursuing charges against them.

-Thanks to permit wanke​r​y, St. George, Utah police shut down a big Halloween party on October 25 because of dancing. Our young Kevin Bacon-y hero got permission for the party, but somehow not for anyone to be allowed to dance at said party, under threat of felony riot incitement. Seriously. Find some real crime, or a dour-faced John Lithgow will play you in the movie adaption.

-Virginia is considering a​ bill ​which would mandate the return of property and cash seized by asset forfeiture, provided the original owner is never found guilty of a crime. Theft by law enforcement is to be outlawed, basically. Talk about the least they can possibly do.

-Our Good Cops of the Week are those LAPD offi​cers who​ chased after a woman who had been kidnapped during a carjacking on Thursday morning. Seems like those Los Angeles high-speed police chases have a point beyond TV ratings, at least some of the time.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on Tw​itter.