Florida police failed to unlock phone using a dead man's finger — but corpses may still help in hacking handsets

  • Police in Largo, Florida, went to a funeral home to press a dead man's finger against his phone in a failed attempt to unlock the handset.

  • This was not the first attempt by police in the United States to unlock a phone in this way.

  • Other tech options exist for law enforcement to hack phones that don't require corpses.

Two officers of the Largo Police Department in Florida arrived at a funeral home recently and asked to see the body of a man shot dead last month. They then proceeded with the gruesome duty of trying to unlock the man's mobile phone with his lifeless finger, according to a published report.

The policemen failed to open the phone belonging to 30-year old Linus Phillip, according to a report Friday in The Tampa Bay Times.

The newspaper reported that police wanted to search the handset as part of the inquiry into Phillip's death, as well as a separate drug-related investigation. A Largo police officer shot Phillip after he tried to evade arrest and nearly hit the policeman with his car, according to reports. A representative from Largo PD, located about 25 miles west of Tampa, did not respond to Business Insider's interview request.

A lot of legal and ethical questions are raised here, including whether or not police should treat the dead this way. Phillip's fiancee Victoria Armstrong said she felt violated and disrespected by the officers' actions, the Associated Press reported.

Another question, that at least those who follow technology might ask, is: what made police think that the finger of a corpse would open the phone? This wasn't the first attempt of its kind in the United States.

In November 2016, police in Ohio pressed the bloodied finger of Abdul Razak Ali Artan to his iPhone after he injured more than a dozen people at Ohio State University by stabbing and ramming his car into them, according to a report last month in Forbes. In that case too, the dead man's finger failed to open the phone.

Though it's not clear what brand of phone Phillip owned, Engadget years ago concluded that a finger from a corpse would not unlock an iPhone.

The Touch ID system uses two methods to sense and identify a fingerprint, capacitive and radio frequency. "A capacitive sensor is activated by the slight electrical charge running through your skin," wrote Engadget in 2013. "We all have a small amount of electrical current running through our bodies, and capacitive technology utilizes that to sense touch."

And the radio frequency waves in an iPhone sensor would also not open unless living tissue was present.

But according to the same story in Forbes, a workaround may be possible. The magazine quoted unnamed law-enforcement sources who indicated that police in Ohio and New York have found a way to hack a phone using a dead person's fingerprints. Unclear is whether the police already had the fingerprints on file or whether they obtained them from the bodies.

Forbes' sources said "it was now relatively common for fingerprints of the deceased to be depressed on the scanner of Apple iPhones."

And police in Largo might have also contacted companies, such as Cellebrite or GrayShift. They reportedly have the ability to hack into phones without handling corpses.

Regardless of whether police have the legal right to use a dead person's body to open a phone, they might be better served to exhaust some of the other technological options first.

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