Science

What is Face ID and how we can use it

iPhone - Flickr via Jenifer Chen

By Alex Payne

Face ID, a propiaratary facial recognition system designed by Apple, was unveiled alongside the iPhone X during September 2017. Boasting increased security and 30% quicker unlock speed than it’s biometric predecessor, Touch ID, the technology is now on it’s third generation. Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Apple, described the technology as “simple, natural and effortless”, during his presentation that took an indepth look at the technology.

Once the user’s face has been registered on the iPhone, it can be used to unlock the device in all conditions, including total darkness, thanks to a complex web of advanced technologies. Using the TrueDepth camera, face data is created by analysing over 30,000 infrared dots, which then is encrypted and sent to a section of the CPU named the “Secure Enclave”. While that may sound a little intimidating, it’s essentially a tiny Xbox Kinect installed in the notch in the newer iPhones and iPads. Facial data is then collected mathematically, and is passed through systems that imitate the human brain called neural networks. This data isn’t accessible to Apple in its raw form, which was a security concern for some when it was announced.

While Apple doesn’t directly store users’ faces, third party developers might. Thousands of app developers, including Snapchat, have access to the technology if granted camera permissions, and can use it to pin a three-dimensional filter to their face among other uses. For example, game avatars could soon be able to mirror users’ facial expressions virtually. 

Possibilities may seem endless, but Apple has explicitly banned developers from using the data for advertising or marketing purposes, or selling it to analytics companies. So while some more dystopian applications of Face ID may never be explored, there is still a wide range of uses.

When announced, many users expressed concerns that Face ID could be fooled more easily than the existing Touch ID, or traditional pins and passcodes. Reassuringly, Apple claims that the odds of somebody that isn’t you accessing your phone is one in a million, which makes it twenty times as secure as Touch ID, which was one in 50,000. Pundits armed with photographs and Hollywood grade masks have taken stabs at attempting to breach Face ID, and all but one of those efforts failed. Viatnamese security firm Bkav announced that they had created a mask that successfully unlocked the first generation of the security system, but WIRED noted that their technique was more proof of concept than genuine concern, as the mask required a digital scan of the iPhone owners face.

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