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Police Could Use The Dead to Unlock Phones

Detail of the touch ID sensor on an Apple iPhone 6s. Future Publishing Future Publishing

When you die, someone could use your dead body to unlock your iPhone. USA Today reports that new technology like finger and face locks make it easier for us to identify ourselves to our smartphone to unlock it, but none of those technologies actually require you to be alive in order to use them.

The issue has come up in the case of Devin Kelley, the gunman in Texas that recently killed 25 people at a local church.

Within 48 hours of the incident, police could have potentially used Kelley’s thumbprint to unlock his phone if he had TouchID enabled on his device, even though he was deceased. After 48 hours of non-use, the feature requires the numeric passcode. The time limit passed before authorities attempted to unlock the phone, so they are currently unable to gain access to it.

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It’s not a guaranteed deal. Speaking with USA Today, Anil Jain, a professor of computer science at Michigan State University notes that as a body rots it changes shape. “Body parts under water and in very hot climate will decompose much faster,” he says. So depending on where a person died and how they may or may not be capable of unlocking the device post-mortem.

It’s also a lot easier on older systems. Newer fingerprint scanners look for a conductive property on the skin (the same thing your touchscreen needs, and why it won’t work with gloves). You fingers lose that property shortly after death. In order to break into a phone, someone would need to build a conductive copy of your finger. Jain’s lab has already built several molds that have been used to unlock phones. While it’s not something a random person is probably going to do, it is possible.

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