Passcode vs Fingerprint Security

For many years, security experts argued that the use of fingerprints (or other biometrics like eye scans or facial recognition) to open secured applications and systems is far superior to the use of passcodes. After all, most Americans – no matter how often they’re advised otherwise – use passcodes that are so simplistic they’re easily cracked with readily available software.

So today, especially when it comes to securing personal computers and smartphones, the use of fingerprints and other biometrics has become routine in newer models. For example, my smartphone can be unlocked with either a fingerprint or a passcode and my laptop can be unlocked with either facial recognition or a passcode.

But now a judge has thrown into question which form of security is best when it comes to keeping the government from forcing you to turn over personal documents, photographs, videos and other data stored on electronic devices.

This ruling is something we all need to know about so we can decide for ourselves which method to use depending on our personal circumstances.


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OK, let’s talk about password vs. fingerprint security systems when it comes to protecting personal documents, photographs, videos and any other information you want secured against prying eyes.

According to The Virginian-Pilot in “Police Can Require Cellphone Fingerprint, Not Pass Code”:

A Circuit Court judge has ruled that a criminal defendant can be compelled to give up his fingerprint, but not his pass code, to allow police to open and search his cellphone.

The question of whether a phone’s pass code is constitutionally protected surfaced in the case of David Baust, an Emergency Medical Services captain charged in February with trying to strangle his girlfriend.

Prosecutors had said video equipment in Baust’s bedroom may have recorded the couple’s fight and, if so, the video could be on his cellphone. They wanted a judge to force Baust to unlock his phone, but Baust’s attorney, James Broccoletti, argued pass codes are protected by the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits forced self-incrimination.

Judge Steven C. Frucci ruled this week that giving police a fingerprint is akin to providing a DNA or handwriting sample or an actual key, which the law permits. A pass code, though, requires the defendant to divulge knowledge, which the law protects against, according to Frucci’s written opinion.”

OK. The underlying facts of the case are pretty gruesome and most of us hope that if the defendant did it, he gets what’s coming to him.

But, if the Fourth and Fifth Amendments aren’t strong enough to protect defendants in horrific cases, they’ll never be strong enough to protect Americans like you and me against unreasonable searches or forced self-incrimination – protections the Founders and Framers understood were so integral to our Natural Rights that they were enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

The judge’s ruling highlights the dilemma I put forth at the top of this advisory. Biometrics are supposed to make us more secure than passcodes, not less.

As Zack Whittaker over at ZDNet put it in “Virginia Police Can Now Force You to Unlock Your Smartphone with Your Fingerprint”:

Perhaps the irony is that fingerprint technology was meant to make devices more secure for consumers and enterprises alike, and not easier to gain access to by government agencies.”

Bingo! That’s the dilemma. That’s the problem.

So what should we do?

First, a caveat. This is the ruling of a circuit court judge in Virginia and it will probably be appealed to a higher state court. Plus, while the ruling has some significance in Virginia, it has almost no significance in any other state or federal court.

Having pointed that out, the reality is this issue will be taken up by other courts in the near future and will probably be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court within the next five years. In other words, we can’t escape the dilemma presented.

So, fingerprint or passcode? After all, for most applications, the use of a fingerprint or other biometric identifier provides better security against hackers and other thieves than does a passcode.

Best Answer: If you can – if your device allows it – use both. As Whittaker notes about the government trying to gain access, “If a device is locked by both a fingerprint and a passcode, the passcode wins, meaning the device is protected.”

However, most devices in use by consumers today don’t provide an option to require both a passcode and a biometric identifier. So you need to decide who is the more likely threat to the security of your personal documents, photographs, videos and other data – a government agent or a hacker?

If it’s a government agent, go with a strong passcode.

If it’s a hacker, go with a fingerprint or other biometric identifier.

What are your thoughts? Passcode or fingerprint? Email me at[email protected]

Be safe, secure and free!

Rob Douglas – Former Washington DC Private Detective

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