Apple's Face ID draws mixed response
13 September 2017 20:31 GMT

Apple's decision to opt for facial over fingerprint recognition in its latest flagship smartphone has been welcomed for its boldness in some quarters, but derided in others as a danger to security and a regression in ergonomics.

As had been widely reported in leaks, the $999 iPhone X was launched on Tuesday with a 3D face recognition that is smart enough to authenticate users if their head is tilted away from the screen.

Face ID on the iPhone X uses a "TrueDepth" camera setup, which blasts your face with more than 30,000 infrared dots and scans your face in 3D. Apple says this can "recognize you in an instant" and log you into your phone. The algorithm can work out what it would look like if you were facing straight at it.

Apple has stated that facial recognition information is stored locally in a secure enclave on the Apple A11 Bionic chip and is not stored in the cloud.

At the launch, Apple staff boasted of its security credentials:

“The chance that a random person in the population could unlock your iPhone X and unlock it with their face is one in a million,” said Apple’s Philip Schiller during a press conference yesterday.

Schiller said Face ID — which requires users to look at the phone with eyes open for it to unlock — was even more secure than fingerprints.

“Nothing has ever been simpler,” Schiller said. “Face ID is the future of how we unlock our smartphones and protect our sensitive information.”

 Apple’s marketing video showed off three-dimensional masks used to test Face ID against spoofing attacks, and the simple fact of having a motion-capable camera should make it easier to spot a false face at work.

But critics say this ignores other types of security issue.

For example, what if your phone refuses to recognise your face, and doesn’t let you in? 

“The two errors are related; for a given biometric system, if you reduce one type of error, the other type of error goes up,” Anil Jain at Michigan State University told the New Scientist.

Under normal conditions, such as without perfect lighting, a perfectly still camera and the person in the perfect pose – in other words, the real world in which we use our phones, publicly tested algorithms have only managed to get below an overall error rate of around 5 per cent. This is a high risk of your phone failing to unlock, or, worse, unlocking for someone else.

When demonstrating Face ID on stage yesterday, Apple’s Craig Federighi found this out. The software failed to recognise him and he ended up having to enter a passcode to unlock the phone.

Critics have also expressed concerns that Face ID may not work with makeup, that it works slower than Touch ID and that it could be prone to hacking by the police.

In regards to usability and design, critics say face recognition just isn't as versatile and easy as fingerprint - as was suggested by the embarrassing glitch at the launch of the iPhone X.

"The problem is the ergonomics," wrote an ars Technica reviewer. "You need to aim it at your face. This is slow and awkward, especially when compared to a fingerprint reader, which doesn't have to be aimed at anything."

"The difference is probably one or two seconds, but for something you do 80 times a day, having the fastest possible unlock system really matters."

Other reviewers noted failed unlocks.

"Question marks remain over Face ID as a way of unlocking the phone, but if your face truly does get 'learned' over time, it could work well," surmised TechRadar.

On privacy, the ACLU says it could well be used to the benefit of police in possession of a locked iPhone, since court cases over the past several years have ruled that cops can force citizens to use their thumbprints to unlock their iPhones—but not compel them to hand over their iPhone passwords.

“Under the current doctrine, it’s most likely not going to be a Fifth Amendment problem for police to [use your face to unlock your iPhone],” said Brett Kaufman, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who works on national-security issues.