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Cell phones have been the new frontier in search and seizure law, and for a while they've been giving fits to law enforcement and the courts. Can customs search your cloud data at the border? Can the feds force tech companies to provide access to phone data? Can a warrant give police access to everyone's phone at a given location? Can police 3-D print a finger to unlock a phone?
It may seem weird, but courts actually treat passcodes and fingerprints differently when it comes to unlocking phones, and more and more people are becoming aware that their phones are actually less secure (from law enforcement anyway) with fingerprint access. So, naturally, Apple came up with a fix for that -- the "cop button."
Physical Evidence and Metaphysical Contents
More accurately, as the Verge describes, it's like a cop sequence of taps. Apple's upcoming iOS11 for the iPhone will let users tap the power button five times for emergencies. This then allows someone to dial 911 while also disabling the phone's Touch ID feature until they enter a passcode. Essentially, Apple is giving iPhone users "a far more discreet way of locking out a phone."
Those who haven't been following recent search and seizure case law may be asking themselves why locking out a phone would be useful, or having a passcode accessible phone would be any more secure from police searches than a fingerprint accessible phone. As we mentioned above, courts, and thus law enforcement, treat them very differently. Combinations and codes, to an individual, have generally been considered the "contents of his own mind," and therefore beyond the government's power to compel production. Whereas keys and fingerprints are physical evidence, which "may be extracted from a defendant against his will."
There's another reason this distinction may matter, and why the "cop button" may be necessary in the near feature. Apparently, iOS 11 will also introduce face unlocking on the next iPhone. Giving law enforcement another piece of physical evidence that grants them access phone, and giving users another reason to have a way to disable that access.
Different jurisdictions have been treating cell phones -- and the ways in which law enforcement may force people to unlock them -- in different ways. To find out the law where you live, contact a local criminal defense attorney.