Face ID is not your friend.
The biometric security feature, used in lieu of a passcode on Apple’s later-model iPhones, allows people to unlock their phones with just a scan of the face. Importantly, as a security video from July of New York Department of Homeless Services police officers demonstrates in vivid detail, the person attempting the unlocking doesn’t need to be the phone’s owner.
As Gothamist reported in July, Queens resident Anshuman Bhatia was walking home one day when he spotted a DHS officer without a mask. He took a photo of the officer, which Bhatia has a constitutional right to do (so do you), and then photographed a second maskless officer. That’s when the trouble began.
As surveillance video obtained by Patch, a news blog network, shows, the officers proceeded to handcuff Bhatia and detain him inside a makeshift holding cell — but not before taking his cellphone, which, presumably, had their photos saved on it.
In the second video embedded below, starting around the 7-minute mark, an officer appears to remove Bhatia’s mask and then attempts to unlock his phone using Face ID. The iPhone’s notch is clearly visible.
“I managed to swerve away both times he puts it in my face to not let it unlock,” Bhatia recounted to Patch. “That was my big wake-up call in terms of what was happening to me in that sort of mini jail cell.”
Notably, police cannot legally force you to hand over a phone passcode. Things are a little less clear when it comes to biometrics like Face ID, however. In January of this year, a California judge denied a warrant request that would have compelled suspects to unlock phones using biometrics. Other judges, however, have come to different conclusions.
Regardless of the legality of the matter, using Face ID to secure your phone — in addition to simply being than an alphanumeric passcode — opens you up to the situation allegedly faced by Bhatia: That of an unscrupulous cop trying to force you to unlock your iPhone while you’re handcuffed.
In a now-viral Twitter thread, Bhatia detailed the horrible experience.
“They forcibly took my phone, removed my face mask, and attempted to use my face to unlock the phone,” he wrote. “It was unclear if they were able to unlock it or not[.] However directly after he put the phone down he made homophobic comments, implying that he had seen homosexual content on my phone, saying there were plenty of women out there to be photographed why was I shooting men, though I was unlikely to get laid anyways.”
As protesters, both around the world and in the U.S., rely on their mobile devices to document police violence, keeping your phone secure from law enforcement overreach is a vital concern.
One simple, and effective, way to do that is to use a strong passcode.