Apple claims that the new Face ID scanner that’s in the iPhone X works much better than the facial recognition sensors that are available in other flagship smartphones right now. In fact, the company claims that it’s a much more secure way to lock up your smartphone so others can’t look at it whenever they want, but the reality is that this is just the advent of a new debate.
Is facial recognition really more secure than other methods of locking your phone? We’ve pondered a couple of potential scenarios that you may even be thinking about already, but first, a bit about how Face ID works.
Apple claims Face ID is better than other options
Even before Apple’s iPhone reveal on Tuesday, the Twitter-verse was starting to fill up with tweets from people who were worried about how well Apple’s Face ID, which was then still a rumor, might work. Lots of Twitter users tweeted that they were worried about being locked out of their iPhone if they change their hair or makeup because it won’t be able to recognize them.
Apple’s Face ID uses the whole profile of the user’s face and irises to identify them, supposedly ignoring things like makeup, hats, glasses, lighting or even the effects of aging. During the keynote speech on Tuesday, there was a moment when Apple executive Craig Federighi’s iPhone X failed to identify his face and wouldn’t unlock, which might be all the confirmation some might need that Face ID might not work well enough. TechCrunch noted that he quickly wiped sweat off his face when that happened, however, which could suggest that sweat or shine might confuse Face ID.
Apple management spent a great deal of time on Tuesday explaining how the facial recognition feature works and why it’s supposedly better than similar features from competing smartphone makers. For example, Samsung has already been exposed to some complaints for the Galaxy Note 8‘s facial recognition feature, which is easily tricked by photographs, including low-quality ones. Apple claims that the Face ID sensor in the iPhone X won’t be fooled so easily because it uses 3D imaging, but we will only find out if this is truly the case when this phone starts landing in people’s hands in November.
One other thing we won’t find out until November is how well Face ID works in terms of ease of use. I received my Note 8 last week, and I can say that you must hold the phone a very specific way to get it to recognize you. Sometimes the phone is too close or too far away from the user’s face, and sometimes the iris scanning doesn’t work that well. Ultimately, it’s often just easier to unlock it one of the other ways, and I’m not the only one who’s reported these kinds of problems.
Could someone use Face ID to unlock your phone while you sleep?
Supposedly, Face ID requires the user’s eyes to be open, so theoretically, someone shouldn’t be able to just scan the face of a sleeping person to unlock their iPhone X. However, we won’t know if this is really the case until more people outside of Apple get chances to try it out. Theoretically, it might be possible to scan someone’s face while their sleeping to unlock their iPhone X, which would mean that users’ family members or roommates or anyone with access to their iPhone while they sleep might be able to unlock it.
In a more extreme case, Face ID might be able to unlock the iPhone X of someone who is deceased. Federal officials never would’ve had to take Apple to court in an attempt to get help breaking into the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters a few years ago. Even if the deceased person’s eyes have to be open, theoretically, the person who’s trying to unlock the iPhone might be able to hold their eyes open while scanning their face with Face ID. Once again, we just can’t know how well this will work until more people have their hands on it.
Does Face ID make it easier for police to unlock your phone?
Speaking of federal officials, Face ID raises the issue of whether police officers might be able to hold someone’s iPhone X up to their face to unlock it without their permission. After all, a face is public, while other forms of authentication, like a password, is private. Thus, police might be able to use Face ID to unlock someone’s iPhone X whenever they want. Legally, U.S. officials cannot force a suspect to hand over their password or PIN to unlock their devices, but a Forrester Research analyst told The Los Angeles Times that because faces are public, it’s an entirely different game.
We could look at legal handling of fingerprint locks on devices, but even this area is still untested fully. In some court cases, a court ruled that police needed a search warrant to force someone to use their fingerprint to unlock a device, which requires them to give compelling enough evidence to justify their search. The few cases that have involved forcible unlocking of a device with a suspect’s fingerprint have centered on the Fifth Amendment, which protects citizens from incriminating themselves during a case against them. Because a password or PIN is the contents of your mind, they’re protected by the Fifth Amendment, but a fingerprint or face are physical evidence, so they are not.
It’s possible that Face ID will follow similar rules as those for devices locked by fingerprint, although there’s another problem. Apple makes it sound like it’s so easy to use Face ID to unlock your phone, so if that’s the case, it could be pretty easy for police to do it too, perhaps even making it seem accidental. Then again, if you’re doing anything that you might get in trouble for, you should probably just stop doing it. Problem solved.