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Privacy Tech | Apple's iPhone X comes with facial scanning authentication and some privacy concerns Related reading: Notes from the IAPP Canada Managing Director, June 11, 2021





While speaking at Apple's 10th anniversary iPhone event in the brand-new Steve Jobs Theater, Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the iPhone X, a device he says will usher in the next decade of smartphone innovation.

The flagship feature of the iPhone X is Face ID, allowing users to unlock their devices via facial recognition technology. While Face ID represents a benchmark in the development of smartphones and opens up a new era of facial recognition authentication, the feature has raised several privacy concerns.

Georgetown University Law Center on Privacy & Technology Associate Clare Garvie, who specializes in facial recognition technology, sees similarities between Face ID and the Touch ID feature first seen in the iPhone 5s.

"Apple's approach to integrating face verification into the new iPhone appears to track closely with their approach to the inclusion of fingerprints in previous generations," Garvie said in an email to Privacy Tech. "While the fingerprint sensor was not invincible, this suggests that we can be reasonably confident in the security of the face template on file — unlike with other face recognition systems, which operate on a remotely stored database of numerous face templates."

Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Philip Schiller gave an overview during yesterday's event of how consumers will use the new device. When setting up an iPhone X, the device will offer instructions in order to create a model of the user's face. 

Every time a user goes to unlock their iPhone X, the device's TrueDepth Camera System will recognize the user's image, allowing them to access the device. The TrueDepth Camera System works by detecting the image using the system's flood illuminator, regardless of the lighting in the area. The system's infrared camera will take an IR image, while the dot projector sends out 30,000 invisible IR dots. The dot pattern is sent through a neural network, where it will be matched up to the facial scan taken when first operating the device.

Face ID is designed to not only unlock the iPhone X but can also be used with Apple Pay and several third-party apps.

Schiller said Face ID is designed to evolve as the user's face changes. "Face ID learns your face, even if you change your hairstyle, decide to put on glasses, or if you are wearing a hat," Schiller said. "It learns who you are, and it adapts to you as your face changes over time."

Schiller said the user's facial scan will stay on the iPhone X and will not be stored on any servers. He also discussed the iPhone X team's efforts to protect against intruders from spoofing the facial recognition technology.

Apple enlisted mask makers and makeup artists from Hollywood in its tests of Face ID and ensured the system could not be fooled by photographs. Schiller said the face scan is protected by a secure enclave, and Apple's A11 bionic chip, while adding Face ID will not work if the user is looking away from the device or has their eyes closed.

Marc Rogers, head of infosecurity at CloudFlare, pointed out on Twitter that photos will not spoof Apple's FaceID authentication. 

Despite the work to protect user data, some have still expressed privacy concerns. Garvie said the feature could be used by another person if they were to get ahold of a device, such as a police officer holding up the iPhone X to a person's face.

"Exacerbating this is the question of whether we have any expectation of privacy to our face. Some courts have been willing to permit law enforcement to compel a fingerprint unlock of a phone; they will be all the more likely to permit compelling a face unlock. And unlike TouchID, which allows us to enroll just one of our 10 prints, we only have one face," Garvie said.

Apple has incorporated several features in an attempt to mitigate those concerns. Slate reports the iPhone X comes with a software upgrade reportedly allowing users the ability to disable Face ID unlocking the device by tapping the power button five times. Forbes reports the new iOS 11 will have a new feature preventing quick searches when an iPhone is connected to an unknown computer.

In a phone conversation with Privacy Tech, cybersecurity startup BioCatch's vice president of marketing, Frances Zelazny, said she is happy to see Face ID come to the marketplace, as it benefits consumers who wish to have a choice in their biometric identifiers. While Zelazny said both fingerprint and facial recognition verifiers have their flaws, having another biometric identification method will only benefit users in the long run. She backs a layered biometric approach to authentication, believing the best outcome is for biometric identification methods, such as face scans and fingerprints, for example, to be used in combination, rather than individually.

As consumers begin picking up the iPhone X this holiday season, the era of facial recognition authentication in smartphones will commence, as will its normalization. Georgetown's Garvie said issues could arise as the world gets more comfortable having their faces scanned.

"As our appreciation grows with the convenience of FaceID, paying with our face, and sending animated emoji, we cannot forget that many other applications of face recognition are less accurate, and carry greater privacy concerns," said Garvie. "Examples of this include surveillance by law enforcement, customer monitoring by retail outlets, face recognition apps that permit strangers to identify you from your social media presence, and more. Even as we adopt certain uses of face recognition, we must avoid the temptation to think that all systems are alike in accuracy and in their risks." 

It's a sentiment shared by Edward Snowden, as well.

Schiller announced the iPhone X will be available for pre-order on Oct. 27 and will be in stores on Nov. 3 carrying a $1,000 price tag. 

Top photo: Screenshot taken from Apple's 10th anniversary iPhone event.


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