Apple and the Face ID Freakout

September 15th, 2017

In the run-up ahead of Apple’s iPhone media event, news emerged that Touch ID wasn’t part of the picture on the iPhone X. Apple allegedly had problems outfitting the system to work beneath an edge-to-edge OLED display and all that, so they brought out their trump card — Face ID.

The impression that story conveys is that Apple rushed the thing out, and thus it may be seriously flawed.

The facts are otherwise. Face ID requires several components that aren’t needed with Touch ID. Apple has been working on the system for several years. The 2013 purchase of PrimeSense, an Israel-based developer of 3D technology, formed a key part of the its facial recognition capability. This obviously means that Apple thought about moving past Touch ID four years ago.

Again, the thought that this was a rush job is absolutely not true. I suppose, of course, that Apple could have considered offering two biometric systems, with Touch ID in the rear, but opted not to. The Samsung Galaxy S8 has three; the third being iris recognition, but since two of the systems are seriously flawed, it hardly matters.

In any case, there’s yet another fear-mongering article online (I won’t link to it), suggesting that, “Apple has a mountain to climb to get people to use Face ID.”

Well, actually it involves buying an iPhone X, since that’s the only biometric system it’ll have, and customers will likely want to use it, particularly if they use services and apps that previously required Touch ID. I would think that’s a given, but the Apple critic world appears to sometimes exist in another universe.

Now the fear, uncertainty and doubt about Face ID in part mirrors what you heard about Touch ID when it arrived with the iPhone 5s in 2013. To be fair, it wasn’t as fluid then. It was a little sluggish, and it didn’t always work. As the system and iOS advanced, it became faster and more consistent. These days, it’s almost seamless for most users.

There were elaborate and gruesome tales of killing someone or cutting off their fingers to unlock an iPhone, but it actually required the fingerprint of a living, breathing person. Such stories were doubtless based on movies and TV shows that used such actions as plot devices. But Touch ID existed in the real world, and it was certainly a secure system. Indeed, the fingerprint data was encrypted in a secure enclave on the device itself so Internet criminals couldn’t dig up the data from a cloud server somewhere.

Up till now, facial recognition has had a checkered history. It goes back a few years on some Android handsets, and you could always defeat it with a photo. And, as I wrote above, you can still defeat it on the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

None of that should mean anything, however. Fingerprint sensors were far flakier before Apple bought AuthenTec in 2012 and adapted its technology for Touch ID.

Now I do not expect Face ID to be necessarily perfect. There’s always a passcode backup if it fails. The system tries twice to get it right before going to Plan B. This compares to Touch ID, which can fail up to five times before the passcode screen appears.

Indeed, some have pointed to Face ID’s apparent failure on an iPhone X during the Apple media presentation, although it’s now claimed that those who set up the demonstration may have triggered a couple of recognition errors, which is why the password screen appeared. They should have simply restarted the unit, but a second handset was available for a proper demonstration.

Reporters who attended the Apple event tried Face ID, and there were some reports of failures or flakiness. No doubt Apple will be working on improving accuracy up till the time the iPhone X goes on sale in early November. As it is, a GM seed of iOS 11 came out right after the event, and it’s quite possible it already has some fixes.

Remember that Touch ID wasn’t perfect either. The real concern, however, is security and a decent level of reliability. So the facial data will be stored in a secure enclave, same as Touch ID. But in light of the early encounters, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some bugs that will be addressed over time.

The most important concern is whether it’s safe, and the fact that Apple is following the Touch ID playbook ought to assuage concerns on that score.

But the state of Face ID won’t be obvious until reporters have shipping products to test. No doubt Consumer Reports will jump into the fray as soon as they have a unit, and if there are problems, you can bet they will make sure to write lurid headlines about it.

Funny thing, though, CR hasn’t been making such a big deal about the failure of two of the three biometric systems on the latest Samsung Galaxy handsets. Or maybe it’s assumed a Samsung gadget will be flawed, and such defects just don’t matter.

But if any Apple product exhibits a potential security issue, it’s close to front page news. In the meantime, however,  critical stories about Face ID can only be taken seriously once they are based tests of a production unit. And, lest we forget, it hasn’t shipped yet.

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One Response to “Apple and the Face ID Freakout”

  1. dfs says:

    I don’t understand all the howling about Apple’s use of facial recognition technology, since that’s been a standard tool of police and intelligence agencies in this country and elsewhere for some time now. Somebody might not like the idea, but that ship has sailed, and I don’t see why its use in a commercial product changes that very much. Until everybody gets a microchip implanted at birth, it’s probably the safest and surest biometric indicator we have.

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