When Apple introduced its flagship iPhone X three years ago, it replaced fingerprints with facial recognition and made “Face ID” even more secure than “Touch ID”. Within a year, face-mapping technology came to more iPhones and iPads, which Apple used to drop its home buttons for scanning fingers while following the industry trend of downsizing the bezels of phones and tablets.
Face ID worked pretty well in late 2017, and thanks to subtle hardware and software improvements, devices are now unlocked almost as quickly as Touch ID – if it works. On the software side, the Face ID compares each potential user to a 3D card, which consists of two initial facial scans and the subsequent scanned changes (e.g. hair changes) associated with the registered owner. It now also allows for a second face map based on an “alternate appearance”
However, when the Face ID is confronted with a user’s face mask, it usually refuses to unlock it. Apple was made aware of the problem long before the COVID-19 pandemic but apparently chose not to address it, possibly because complaints came from only a handful of regions where masks were used. After the outbreak of the pandemic, Apple had to act and eventually offered a workaround: Face ID now gives up once a face mask is detected and quickly gives the user a keyboard to manually enter the device’s passcode.
I’ve lived with this workaround system since it debuted in iOS, and it’s not great. Whether I’m trying to check a shopping list or respond to an incoming text message while wearing a mask in my suburbs, using my iPhone in public has become a common problem. In denser urban environments, users seem to feel compelled to remove their masks in order to move around public places at an acceptable pace while using their devices.
It would be easy for Apple to solve this problem by saying that users should stop using their devices as often. In reality, however, Apple has brought smartphones towards ubiquity in public spaces, making them critical for navigation and public transport, and enabling them to serve as payment methods and transit access devices. People now rely on quick and secure access to their iPhones at all times, an expectation that Apple is responsible for addressing.
Now, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is publicly calling on Apple to upgrade iPhones to improve Face ID’s performance during the pandemic. In an open letter to Apple, MTA chairman Patrick Foye noted that passengers removed their masks to unlock their phones – an issue that obviously exposes their faces to the common air of the subway and vice versa. As a workaround, Foye asked Apple to work with the MTA to publicize the passcode workaround for iOS. But he also pushes[d] Apple is accelerating the deployment of new technologies and solutions that will further protect customers in the age of COVID-19. “
I reached out to the MTA to see if they suggested specific solutions for Apple, and a spokesman gave Apple the details. It is clear, however, that something has to change and the MTA wants Apple to “investigate additional technological changes that can be made to make signing in on the phones faster and more efficient for everyone”.
I believe there are at least several solutions that might make sense in the short term, as well as one that is “right” for next generation devices. I will underline that time is of the essence here. It is not possible to wait until the next year or to buy a new or different phone. The pandemic is now active and a solution should be found quickly and not “at some point”.
- Adjust Face ID to perform half face scanning. Ideally, Apple could use the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera system to analyze twice as much detail in the upper half of the face. If not, Apple offers one Optional The setting to allow unlocking with a match in the upper half at the current fidelity does not seem inappropriate.
- Offer another public transport unlock solution. Apple could use its Maps database to protect public transportation hubs and – with the user’s permission – automatically switch to a special protocol when drivers enter stations. With the protocol, a user could potentially open a single, less secure app with a single touch of a button, or never try to access Face ID for a faster passcode.
- Use another form of biometric security besides face recognition. Even if Apple isn’t ready to put Touch ID back into iPhones – a move many have speculated based on advances in fingerprint scanning on the screen – an Apple Watch user could automatically unlock an iPhone without Face ID while the watch is on was near the iPhone. Apple already allows the iPhone to unlock the watch this way after a Face ID scan, and the watch can unlock a nearby Mac, so adding the iPhone to this list isn’t difficult.
I have no doubt that Apple engineers were already working on alternatives like this, and probably well before the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the company may be tempted to opt out of a simpler solution in the name of even higher device security, or to unlock a next-generation Face ID and Touch ID device using an on-screen fingerprint scanner. Many users, including myself, would consider this an ideal alternative to Apple’s current hardware.
In the midst of a pandemic, however, Apple shouldn’t allow perfection to be the enemy of a good solution, and shouldn’t force users to swap out their devices in order to unlock them in public. Just as the company rushed to put in place an exposure / contact tracking notification system on Google, a software-based alternative to the Face ID system must be a priority.
COVID-19 may not have touched your life or anyone you care about, but the pandemic has generally shown that relying on facial recognition for biometric authentication – and other purposes – is not always a good idea. Going forward, Apple (and others) will need to adopt solutions that consider public health, rather than unnecessarily creating risk every time people unlock their phones.