When iOS 11 is released to the public next week, it will bring a new feature with big benefits for user security. Last month, some vigilant Twitter users using the iOS 11 public beta discovered a new way to quickly disable Touch ID by just tapping the power button five times. This is good news for users, particularly those who may be in unpredictable situations with physical security concerns that change over time.
The newly uncovered feature is simple. Tapping an iPhone power button rapidly five times will bring up an option to dial 9-1-1. After a user reaches that emergency services screen, Touch ID is temporarily disabled until they enter a passcode. In other words, you can call emergency services without unlocking the phone—but then your fingerprint can’t unlock it.
This is a big improvement on previously known and relatively clunky methods for disabling Touch ID, including restarting the phone, swiping a different finger five times to force a lock-out, or navigating through settings to disable it manually.
Not About Law Enforcement
While there is some speculation that this feature is intended to defeat law enforcement—with some going as far as to call it a “cop button”—it is, at its core, a common-sense security feature. The option to disable Touch ID quickly and inconspicuously is helpful for any user who needs more choices and flexibility in their physical security. Think about all the situations where a user might be worried that someone will unexpectedly force them to unlock their phone: a mugging, domestic abuse from a partner or parent, physical harassment or stalking, bullying. Even the fact that the feature is activated alongside an option to quickly call 9-1-1 links it to a whole range of emergency situations in which law enforcement is not already present.
Even though this new feature is not aimed at law enforcement, it brings a potentially unintended side effect: now when you used Touch ID, you’re not giving up your Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment of course gives us the right to remain silent in interactions with the government. In legalese, we say that it provides us a right to be free from compelled self-incrimination. EFF has long argued that the Fifth Amendment protects us from having to turn over our passwords. But the government, and a number of digital law scholars such as EFF Special Counsel Marcia Hofmann, have suggested that our fingerprints may not have such protection, and some courts have agreed. With today’s announcement, we no longer have to choose between maintaining our Fifth Amendment right to refuse to unlock our phones and the convenience of Touch ID.
We call on other manufacturers to follow Apple’s lead and implement this kind of design in their own devices.