Apple’s new iPhone X scans, stores and tracks your face with unprecedented detail and accuracy, using a unique array of cameras on the front of the phone. While it’s not the first phone to feature facial recognition, it is the first to use it as the main way to unlock your device and make payments.
Since the phone was unveiled, security commentators have suggested the “Face ID” biometric system is a risk. While the Touch ID system of previous iPhones needs users to press their fingerprint against the home button, Face ID merely requires a glance at the phone’s screen to unlock it.
Previous facial recognition systems have been easily fooled by photos or masks, and there are growing privacy and safety fears that companies and governments could exploit the technology for surveillance and tracking purposes.
Apple has attempted to dispel many of these fears, and the company’s record on security is above-par. But with facial scanning set to be one of the major privacy battlegrounds of the next few years, could Apple’s endorsement of the technology make us too comfortable with facial tracking?
How does Face ID work?
The iPhone X has an array of sensors at the top of the phone, including a “dot projector, infrared camera and flood illuminator”. The dot projector beams 30,000 invisible dots onto your face, the flood illuminator then bathes your face in infrared light (which you can’t see), and the infrared camera scans the dots. This information then goes to the iPhone’s processor, which crunches the data to see if the face of the person trying to unlock it matches the face that was stored on the phone when Face ID was set up.
Setting it up is easy, simply a case of moving your face around a little while your phone scans it.
Will it work in the dark/with glasses/if I shave?
Face ID uses an infrared camera, so being in the dark or bright sunlight won’t affect it. Subtle changes to faces, such as applying makeup, growing slight facial hair or wearing sunglasses or a hat won’t stop it working either, since the software can adapt for minor changes. Bigger changes to your face, such as shaving off a beard, mean you have to register your face with the phone again.
Face ID on the iPhone X tho #AppleEvent2017 pic.twitter.com/rFlQyuqa1S— Nooruddean (@BeardedGenius) September 12, 2017
It does, however, need to be able to see your eyes, mouth and nose. So it won’t work if you are wearing a burka or niqab, or balaclava.
Can it be fooled?
Apple says it’s very unlikely. While there’s a one in 50,000 chance that someone else will be able to use Touch ID to unlock your phone, the odds of somebody else tricking Face ID is one in a million, according to the company. That still means there are some 7,499 people in the world whose face could unlock your phone, but the chance of running into them is pretty slim. Unless you have an identical twin, in which case you may want to deactivate it.
Key features | iPhone X
But what about deliberately fooling it, with a photo or even a mask of a face? Other face recognition systems, such as those on Samsung’s latest phones, have been fooled by photos from social media profiles. Face ID is different in using 3D sensing, so photos won’t work.
The company says that face masks won’t work either, and that it has gone to great lengths to test it - even enlisting Hollywood studios to produce realistic face masks. Until the iPhone X actually comes out, we’ll have to take Apple’s word for it.
Couldn’t somebody take my phone and use my face to unlock it? Isn’t that a problem?
Yes and no. You have to look at the phone’s screen, with both eyes open, to unlock the phone, so you’d either have to be tricked or under duress for your phone to be unlocked against your will. Which is not all that different from the fingerprint scanner on other iPhones.
Of course, you can always simply rely on the passcode, but most of the time that is much less secure than biometric authentication. While it might be more difficult to force you to unlock a phone with a passcode, the chance of someone spying on you unlocking your phone are probably greater than somebody tricking you into using Face ID.
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Won’t Apple now have a database of people’s faces?
Security issues notwithstanding, there are growing concerns about the number of facial recognition images stored by police and companies, often without people knowing.
Apple has made a point of not storing personal data on its servers unless necessary, and Face ID is no different. Data is held in a “secure enclave” on the phone itself, and the company says it does not leave the phone, in the same way that your fingerprints on Touch ID are locked down to the phone itself.
Besides, if you are worried about companies holding facial recognition data, have you considered the hundreds of tagged images on your Facebook profile, or on Google Photos?
Should I be worried about it?
Facial recognition opens up no shortage of troubling issues. Last week, claims emerged that an algorithm was capable of telling if a subject was gay or straight. That came from just looking at photos, so the extra detail from the iPhone X’s camera system could prove even more accurate.
While Apple has given us no reason to suggest that it isn’t up to protecting our facial records, less trustworthy parties could gain access to 3D images of our faces: Apple is allowing app developers to use the TrueDepth camera. Demos, which included realistic face filters with Snapchat, were on the benign side but in theory a different app could scan our faces for nefarious purposes.
Many people questioned whether Touch ID would be safe four years ago, some even suggesting people would have their fingers cut off in order to unlock the phone. Those fears have proven to be wrong, and bode well as Apple plans to introduce the iPhone X.
Read more | iPhone X launch