Mobile Technology

Is the new iPhone face recognition system a gimmick or the future of smartphones?

Is the new iPhone face recogni...
Apple's big addition to the new iPhone is a high-tech facial recognition system that can unlock the phone with a simple glance
Apple's big addition to the new iPhone is a high-tech facial recognition system that can unlock the phone with a simple glance
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The device scans your face using 30,000 infrared dots
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The device scans your face using 30,000 infrared dots
The front camera on the phone holds a variety of sophisticated sensors
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The front camera on the phone holds a variety of sophisticated sensors
Would a face unlock feature really save you any more time?
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Would a face unlock feature really save you any more time?
Privacy advocates have already expressed concern at how secure the system is
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Privacy advocates have already expressed concern at how secure the system is
Apple's big addition to the new iPhone is a high-tech facial recognition system that can unlock the phone with a simple glance
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Apple's big addition to the new iPhone is a high-tech facial recognition system that can unlock the phone with a simple glance

Another year, another iPhone update purporting to "revolutionize" the smartphone game. The big new thing in this round of updates (unless you're excited by bezel-removals) is the replacement of fingerprint access with a new facial recognition system. It's undoubtedly a high-tech addition, but is it anything more than a gimmick?

Apple is known for its big technological gambits. After helping defining the path of modern technology for the first decade of the new millennium with its iPod, iPhone and iPad, the company has been desperately trying to maintain its role of technology leader and not fall into the category of follower. And so, at the big launch of the new iPhone, we were triumphantly introduced to Face ID, a key function in the new iPhone X, replacing the Touch ID fingerprint technology.

"Face ID is the future of how we unlock our smartphones and protect our sensitive information," declared senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller during theproduct launch. Of course, moments later during the onstage demo the Face ID system embarrassingly failed before a backup phone was swiftly snapped up to show it actually does work.

Would a face unlock feature really save you any more time?
Would a face unlock feature really save you any more time?

Face recognition technology has been floating around the periphery of smartphone innovations for a few years now, albeit in a more primitive form than what Apple has revealed. When a Samsung Galaxy S8 user demonstrated earlier this year how its face recognition system could be tricked with a simple photograph the company quickly followed up by suggesting it wasn't the highest level of security the device could offer.

In announcing Apple's new phone range, a much more sophisticated system was revealed. The iPhone X has several sensors packed into the device, including an infrared camera, dot projector, proximity sensor and ambient light sensor. In scanning a user's face the device projects 30,000 infrared dots that are used to create a complex 3D model of the face.

The system is called TrueDepth, and it can supposedly track a user's face accurately even when the user is wearing glasses, a hat, in low-light conditions or in the presence of unexpected facial hair. The system is also claimed to have been tested thoroughly on detecting fake 3D models of faces created by Hollywood special effects artists.

The front camera on the phone holds a variety of sophisticated sensors
The front camera on the phone holds a variety of sophisticated sensors

The device scans your face using 30,000 infrared dots
The device scans your face using 30,000 infrared dots

So despite the amusing demonstration error during the launch, it seems the technology is strong – or at least the most advanced we have seen delivered commercially to consumers thus far. Apple is so confident that the Face ID system is the future that it is connecting it to Apple Pay and opening it up to third-party apps.

But how secure is it?

Apple claims the 3D Face ID generated by the device will not be uploaded to the cloud, but will be stored locally on the user's phone. This will avoid the reasonably widespread cloud hacks that have been occurring in recent years, but that surely doesn't mean the data is completely secure.

Another concern is how easily someone could be forced into unlocking their phone. Be it the government or a street thief, this system seems much easier to circumvent than a pin code or a fingerprint. Apple demonstrations seem to show the iPhone X being rather swiftly opened with a simple glance, suggesting it wouldn't be too difficult for someone to steal your phone and unlock it with a straightforward wave past your face.

Privacy specialists are already voicing concerns at the degree of detail in the system's facial scanning technology and what this could mean in terms of nefarious surveillance or advertisement tracking. For the system to work it would potentially need the tracking cameras to be always on, something that is bound to be concerning to many people.

Privacy advocates have already expressed concern at how secure the system is
Privacy advocates have already expressed concern at how secure the system is

The most fundamental question to ask here is, do people want this? Is this a technological innovation that will make our lives easier or is it a flashy gimmick with mostly negative side effects?

Of course, the answer is subjective, but it's hard to make an argument that the Touch ID system was a huge hassle. How many seconds were you wasting with your finger on the home button? This new facial recognition feature arguably doesn't save any time for the user. So why do we need this? Innovation for innovation's sake?

Apple is gambling big on Face ID. Bigger than when it dropped the headphone jack last year. Touch ID was an efficient and easy way to unlock a phone. Removing it and replacing it with Face ID may backfire and simply push people back to good, old passcode security. Or maybe Apple has again made a prescient prediction and such technology will become standard in the coming years.

5 comments
swaan
"For the system to work it would potentially need the tracking cameras to be always on, something that is bound to be concerning to many people." Certainly not. Only the coprocessor is always on to understand when the phone has been picked up and oriented the correct way. Only when the screen turns on (or you tap the screen) does the Face ID system come online or when you want to make a purchase. Its not on when there is no reason to ID the user - it would be a terrible battery hog.
JuMo
...er Microsoft have had iris scanning on all Windows 10 phones and any other Windows 10 device which packs the Windows Hello hardware for over 12 months - not worth a mention?
CharlieSeattle
The new facial recognition system will be hacked by the NSA/CIA/FBI as required.
Bob Flint
Apple is jumping the shark here........So how do the factory workers test the phones? Don't open the box just yet, I need to shave or do makeup so I can use this thing,! Bigger question is why keep reducing the bezel area, as you are trying desperately to hold onto something while aiming this thing into your face so it can be beam you with thousands of scans, with your fingers inevitably touching some stupid function. Unless of course your fingernails are sloth talons, that can clamp around the sides. That would also explain the facial recognition requirement since the skin on your fingers don't actually contact any conductive surface on the glass and you end up blabbing your personal info around for everyone to hear...
kelly23
We have to remember that this was (supposedly) their fallback system. Originally they wanted a fingerprint reader under the glass. Now, when that comes out, do they have to advertise that they've gone from 1 in 1,000,000 chance of failure back to 1 in 50,000? Also, I often just push the home button and activate the phone enough to glance at it. Now i have to pick it up and stare at it until it unlocks. Not really an improvement in my book. If I were given an X, I'd have to turn that feature off.