Beta testers evaluating Apple’s upcoming iOS 11 have discovered new emergency SOS functions, as well as what some are calling a “cop button.” Press the power button five times on an iPhone running iOS 11, and the device will do two things. First, it brings up an option to dial emergency contacts if you swipe right. Second, it disables Touch ID until you log in with your passcode again.
This is a significant step for several reasons. First, it’s impossible to see Apple implementing this kind of feature without recalling the knock-down drag-out battle between Apple and the Department of Justice back in early 2016. The FBI’s repeated demands that Apple unlock a smartphone, despite having no reason to believe any data of note was contained on it, was a blatant attempt to establish a precedent that tech companies can be forced to break into their own products when the government would find it convenient.
The case was dismissed before reaching a verdict; the government claimed it found a third-party hacking firm that could deliver the data without requesting it from Apple. General consensus was that the DOJ was banking on a swift affirmative in both court and in the court of public opinion, and was caught off-guard by how much controversy its requests generated.
The other advantage of this kind of capability is that there’s no legal protection for your fingerprint or facial features. When it comes to the Fifth Amendment, the law distinguishes between something you know and something you are. You cannot be forced to incriminate yourself, which means you can’t be required to unlock your phone with its passcode, or to give the government your Apple ID password. Your fingerprints or facial scans–if Apple does what the rumor mill thinks it will, and introduces facial recognition as an unlock technique–are something you are. It is not a violation of your Fifth Amendment rights to take a fingerprint for the purposes of determining if you committed a crime.
There are, to be sure, other reasons why a person might find this capability useful. If you’re in a situation in which you fear for your life, pressing the button five times and swiping right will automatically call 911. That’s an improvement over Apple’s current system, in which hitting the Emergency button will allow you to make an emergency call, but you still have to manually dial it. Even if you aren’t trying to call the cops, there are times when you might want to quickly lock a phone to prevent someone else from seeing what’s on it. Either way, this is plausible deniability at its finest.