FBI Forced Child Abuse Suspect Grant Michalski To Unlock Apple iPhone X With Face ID

Apple iPhone X face ID
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Apple debuted the Face ID feature with the iPhone X in 2017 and it raises the question if this can be used to compel criminal suspects to unlock their phone with their face.

Now, Forbes reported what appears to be the first case in which law enforcement used the facial recognition technology in a criminal investigation.

This happened during a raid on Aug. 10, when the FBI told a child abuse suspect to use Apple Face ID to open his iPhone.

“Traditionally, using a person’s face as evidence or to obtain evidence would be considered lawful,” said Jerome Greco, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “But never before have we had so many people’s own faces be the key to unlock so much of their private information.”

Federal agents raided the home of Grant Michalski in Columbus, Ohio to search for evidence that could show he sent or received child pornography.

During the raid, FBI special agent David Knight found Michalski’s iPhone X and with a search warrant in hand, required Michalski to place his face in front of the iPhone, which instantly opened the device.

Various items deemed helpful in the investigation were found on the device. Among these are conversations over the chat app KiK messenger where Michalski and other users discussed the abuse of minors.

Apple customer tries an iPhone X
  Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images

It was later discovered that the 28-year-old suspect had also used the app to talk with an undercover officer who posed as a father interested in sexual relations with children.

Despite Michalski’s cooperation at the scene, the FBI could not siphon all data from the iPhone because they did not know the passcode of the device.

Forensic technologies need the iPhone to connect to a computer, but when you hook up an iPhone to a computer and transfer data, you need to key in the passcode if the device has been locked for at least an hour.

The agents had to ask for and were granted a second search warrant that gave them authority to conduct a more thorough search of the iPhone, but Michalski’s face is no longer needed.

It turns out that the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Columbus Police Department have devices that allow investigators to bypass the passcode of a phone.

In late August, Michalski was charged with receiving and possessing child pornography. Five others were charged, including William Weekley, with whom Michalski messaged on Craigslist about interest in sexual topics.