In July, police approached a computer engineering professor in Michigan to assist them with unlocking a murder victim’s phone by 3D-printing the victim’s fingerprints.
It is a well-established principle of law that ‘there is no property in a corpse.’ This means that the law does not regard a corpse as property protected by rights. So hey, why not, right?
There is even an easy argument to be made that this is in the public interest. Certainly, that seems to be how Professor Anil Jain (to whom the police made the request) feels: “If we can assist law enforcement that’s certainly a good service we can do,” he says.
Marc Rotenberg, President of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) notes that if the phone belonged to a crime suspect, rather than a victim, police would be subject to a Supreme Court ruling requiring them to get a search warrant prior to unlocking the phone—with a 3D-printed finger or otherwise.
I’ve got issues with this outside the victim/suspect paradigm though.
For instance, I find myself wondering about the application of this to live body parts.
I’ve always been amused by the R v Bentham case, from the UK House of Lords in 2005. Bentham broke into a house to commit robbery and in course of this, used his fingers in his pocket to make a gun shape. He was arrested. Though he was originally convicted of possessing a firearm or imitation thereof, that conviction was overturned on the basis that it wasn’t possible for him to “possess” part of his own body. But…if you can’t “possess” your own body, why wait for death before the State makes a 3-D copy of it for its own purposes?
And…we do have legislation about body parts, both live and dead – consider the regulation of organ donation and especially payment for organs. Consider too the regulation of surrogacy, and of new reproductive technologies.
Maybe this is a new area to ponder – it doesn’t fit neatly into existing jurisprudence and policy around the physical body. The increasing use of biometric identifiers to protect personal information inevitably raises new issues that must be examined.
UPDATE: It turns out that the 3D printed fingerprint replica wasn’t accurate enough to unlock the phone. Undeterred, law enforcement finally used a 2D replica on conductive paper, with the details enhanced/filled in manually. This doesn’t really change the underlying concern, does it?