Face ID and the Single User Matter

November 1st, 2017

More preliminary reviews are in. The iPhone X pretty much fulfills its promise with a great display, terrific performance, and all that fear mongering about Face ID was clearly wrongheaded. For the most part, it is as fast or faster than Touch ID, and as accurate in real world use. Not perfect, of course, but neither is Touch ID, although some media reports want to make a big deal of such imperfections.

Sure, the first group of reviewers have only had their units for a few days, but it’s pretty clear where this is all heading, for the most part.

Now as I said in yesterday’s column, there’s some relearning to do due to the loss of a Home button, but it does appear that users can adapt. The exception is when they have other iOS gear, and have to consciously adjust their digits as they switch back and forth. I’m reminded of the benefit of Apple’s decision to provide desktop and notebook keyboards with a similar feel, so you don’t have to spend a few moments getting accustomed to different levels of key travel and such. Before the keyboard designs became more closely aligned, I remember often bringing my desktop Mac’s keyboard with me on the road — or a similar one — so I didn’t have to manage the one on the notebook. I also brought a mouse, because I’ve never liked trackpads.

I still don’t, but at least it’s better than the trackball. But the keyboard stays home.

Now when it comes to Face ID, there’s an important limitation that may impact some of you.

It’s designed for a single user.

Now that puts it at a disadvantage compared to Touch ID. With Touch ID, you can store up to five separate profiles, or five separate fingers. With my iPhone, I store my left and right thumb, to gives me more flexibility depending on where I am and what I’m doing. That leaves three profiles that can be configured for other people, such as my wife.

It’s not that she uses my iPhone all that often, if at all. A smartphone tends to be a personal device that’s meant to be used by one person. But the option is there for those who need it.

However, Face ID is a single user setup. It may well be about the fact that it’s storing lots more data to recognize your face, and that’s understandable. I suppose it’s possible for a future iteration of Face ID to manage more profiles, or perhaps Apple made the decision that the need for a second profile was very limited, and that the second user can just stick with a passcode.

That said, I was curious to see how it would fare with identical twins, and early tests from different publications show a mixed bag. In some cases, it will unlock with either twin, and it other cases it doesn’t. Apple originally promised it wouldn’t work, but I suppose that depends on how identical the sibling is. Maybe Face ID just needs a little fine-tuning, and a future iOS update will improve accuracy. But if the twins are friendly with one another, and there are no trust issues, it shouldn’t be such a big deal.

Otherwise, it’s important to realize that none of these biometric features are presented as 100% secure. Besides, if someone pulls a weapon on you and demands that you unlock your iPhone or iPad with face or finger, you will, of course, make the safe decision. I know I would, just as I would hand over my car’s key fob should the occasion arise.

Except in an action movie or TV show of course.

But anyone who suggests that iPhone X or any other iPhone isn’t as secure as it might be ought to consider the competition. It’s doubtful Samsung’s rear-mounted fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy S8 is more reliable than Touch ID. It’s certainly less intuitive to reach. Worse, Samsung’s facial and iris recognition features are fooled by digital photographs.

So far, at least, attempts to fool Face ID with bogus photos or even a mask won’t succeed. So even the fictional face masks used on Mission Impossible won’t fool such a device. Or maybe it will since we are, of course, talking about a fiction story with sci-fi overtones.

Besides, if you buy an iPhone X and don’t want to trust Face ID, stick with the passcode and be done with it. You aren’t forced to use any other feature if you prefer not to. Indeed, you aren’t forced to even set a passcode if you are absolutely certain nobody else will ever have access to your device. Or you don’t care of they do since there’s little personal data on it.

In the real world, the critics have been temporarily silenced, but they’ll be at it again soon, complaining about every little fault they discover, or imagine, with the iPhone X. At the end of the day, it’s just a piece of electronics designed by humans and is thus imperfect. What else did you expect?

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One Response to “Face ID and the Single User Matter”

  1. dfs says:

    Yes, situations like husband/wife combos are going to be problematic. There’s also the problem of how a repairman can work on an iPhone if he can’t open it (unless Apple has a secret “back door” disclosed only to authorized repairmen??)

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