First Case Surfaces of Law Enforcement Forcing Suspect to Unlock iPhone With Face ID

A Forbes report has highlighted the first known case of law enforcement forcing a suspect to unlock an iPhone using Face ID.

The incident reportedly happened in August when federal agents obtained a warrant to search the house of a man in Columbus, Ohio, as part of a child abuse investigation.

Apple marketing image for Face ID

According to case documents, FBI agents got 28-year-old Grant Michalski to put his face in front of his iPhone X to activate the Face ID facial authentication.

After the device was unlocked, investigators looked through Michalski's chat history, photos, and other files stored on the phone. Evidence discovered on the device was used to charge the suspect later that month with receiving and possessing child pornography.

Several previous cases have occurred where law enforcement has gained access to digital data by forcing people to unlock mobile devices using their fingers. One case even reportedly involved trying to use the finger of a dead person to unlock a phone, which ultimately didn't work.

However, this appears to be the first case in which Face ID has been used, so it's likely to reignite debate over where the law stands in relation to biometric authentication methods.

In the United States, forcing someone to give up a password is interpreted as self-incrimination, which is protected by the fifth amendment and against the law. Nevertheless, courts have ruled that there's a difference between a biometric recognition system like Touch ID and a passcode that you type into your phone.

In the case highlighted by Forbes, the FBI was eventually locked out of the phone and had to gain a second search warrant to allow them to conduct a more thorough search of the device using a third-party unlocking solution, likely similar to Grayshift.

Note: Due to the political nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Politics, Religion, Social Issues forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.

Tags: FBI, Face ID, law

Top Rated Comments

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20 months ago

I just don't understand how moral stuff works in America. If with a warrant to search a house one is forced to let the police in, eventually things might be seized, why someone letting the police in a phone should be any different? Phones, computer or whatever. A judge warrant is a warrant.


The issue is the 5th amendment in the bill of rights, which basically says you can't be forced to testify against yourself. (That includes providing password to your devices and/or accounts) Just because someone has a warrant to search your house for physical evidence, doesn't mean they have a warrant to search you brain for thoughts and memories.

Take for example an off-shore bank account. With a search warrant for your house, they can't put you in front of your computer and force you to log into your bank's website. Instead they would also need to get a warrant for the bank and get your records that way. (although, depending on the country, the bank isn't required to comply)

However, now that our physical bodies are our passwords (fingers/faces), it is an area of the law that should be defined better. Is forcing someone to look into their Face ID camera or put their finger on a Touch ID scanner considered forcing them to testify against themselves? If so, and I believe it is, it is unconstitutional.
Score: 36 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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20 months ago
If with a warrant to search a house one is forced to let the police in, eventually things might be seized, why someone letting the police in a phone should be any different? Phones, computer or whatever. A judge warrant is a warrant.

This context is not about privacy.

Privacy would be some company or individual having access to your private data without your consent (or not under a judge warrant).

If America starts to distrust its judiciary system and taking privacy, protection (guns etc) to its own hands (including "hiring" private companies like Apple) because the system is failing, the fabric of democracy .... dark and hot ages ahead I predict.

I repeat, this is not about privacy.
Score: 25 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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20 months ago

Huh ? How's even possible for such a rule to exist ? We're talking about two different methods to access the same device/information. Under which logic only one of the two methods is protected by law against self-incrimination and not the other ? So, if one uses passcode is entitled to deny to unlock his/her device but in any other case government has the right to demand to a person to self-incriminate ?

You can’t hide your fingerprint/face. Therefore it is not covered under the fifth amendment. Passcodes have to be pulled from memory, which violates fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination. It’s why you have 5-click biometric unlock bypass in iOS now. Five clicks of the power button and a passcode must be entered. Said passcode is protected by fifth amendment privileges.
Score: 19 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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20 months ago
If you have the setting "Require Attention for Face ID" on, then you have to have your eyes properly open to unlock the phone. With that setting on I find that it will stay locked if I look at it by squinting.
Score: 14 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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20 months ago
If the cops only asked and he cooperated, then I’m not sure how this is even newsworthy.

Anyone can ask anything they want.
Score: 14 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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20 months ago
I'm far more worried about criminals getting into my phone to harvest passwords and accounts info than I am about law enforcement getting in.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)

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