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What is Face ID and how does Face ID work?

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Apple no longer wants you to unlock your iPhone with touch. With the iPhone X, it’s all about your face.

Face ID was the standout feature of the iPhone X, and one that differentiates it from the iPhone 8 range and anything that’s come before. It’s Apple’s latest biometric authentication system and works using a new camera array on the front of the screen.

Apple claims the error rating on the iPhone X’s Face ID is one in a million. TouchID had a 1 in 50,000 chance of unlocking for the wrong fingerprint. The tech giant also said Face ID can tell the difference between twins (although the error rating drops when it comes to relatives) and doesn’t get ‘spooked’ by a photograph or even a mask of someone’s face.

READ NEXT: iPhone X review

The latter has now been called into question. After WIRED tried, and failed, to use a mask to trick the system, Vietnamese security firm Bkav claims to have mastered it using a (frankly terrifying) 3D-printed mask and a prosthetic nose. It said that creating the mask was simple, using simple 3D scanning software like that found on the Sony XZ1, and a silicone nose.

In a blog post, and accompanying video, the researchers explain: “We were able to trick Apple’s AI because we understood how their AI worked and how to bypass it. As in 2008, we were the first to show that face recognition was not an effective security measure for laptops…Apple has done this not so well.” In the video, the team is shown removing a cover from the mask positioned in front of the iPhone X. The handset then automatically unlocks.

Bkav was the first company to “break” facial recognition for laptops following its introduction on a range of Toshiba, Lenovo and Asus laptops. That particular exploit was publicly demonstrated and confirmed in 2008. The Face ID proof-of-concept hack has not yet been confirmed in this way so it should be taken with a pinch of salt.

When asked why Bkav has been successful where other websites and firms have failed, it vaguely said: “It is because…we are the leading cyber security firm 😉 It is because we understand how AI of Face ID works and how to bypass it.” It is not clear, therefore, how the initial face was registered on the phone and how the mask specifically differs from others.

Mark James, security specialist at ESET told Alphr: “Although the video itself does leave a few questions to be answered, we need to understand that any of the ‘extra’ ID features of this, and indeed any previous, iPhone have always been aimed at the average user. TouchID and Facial recognition are there for ease, not added security; both of these features can and have been duped by technology- the question you need to ask yourself is ‘does this feature make my life easier?’. If the answer is yes and your phone just contains the ‘normal’ run of the mill level of private stuff, then you’re good to go.”

Alphr has contacted Apple for comment. 

Apple Face ID: What is Face ID?

On the iPhone X, Apple has removed the home button, and with it, Touch ID. In its place is Face ID powered by a so-called TrueDepth camera system built into the front of the phone where the earpiece currently sits on the iPhone 7 range.

READ NEXT: Apple drops the price of iPhone 7 following launch of iPhone 8

This camera system features a number of sensors designed to recognise a person’s face including a dot projector, infrared camera and flood illuminator (which is a fancy name for what is effectively a flash). Glancing at this system will allow you to automatically unlock your iPhone X, but can also be used for Apple Pay and to unlock compatible apps, including banking apps.

Apple Face ID: How does Face ID work?

 When the camera array identifies a person’s face and gaze it projects 30,000 invisible infrared dots to effectively ‘map’ the shape and contours of the face. When a user’s face is first stored on the phone, the pattern of these dots is fed to the iPhone X’s A11 Bionic chip and its neural networks.

These neural networks, designed to work like a human brain, create a mathematical model of your face using the dot pattern and stores this model in a “secure enclave” on the iPhone X itself – it is not uploaded to a cloud server or similar.

READ NEXT: Apple unveils the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus

Next time you look at your iPhone X, the same dots are mapped onto your face and compared to the stored mathematical model. If the pattern matches the model, the phone unlocks. This happens in less than a second. The more the TrueDepth system is used, the more in-tune it becomes to your face and, from the start, can identify face shapes regardless of changes to skin tone, hairstyles, whether you’re wearing glasses or a hat, for example. 

The flood illuminator helps illuminate the face so the dots know where to be placed and means Face ID works in the dark. 

Apple Face ID: Is Face ID secure?

Apple claims the error rating on the iPhone X’s Face ID is one in a million. TouchID had a 1 in 50,000 chance of unlocking for the wrong fingerprint.

The tech giant also said Face ID can tell the difference between twins (although the error rating drops when it comes to relatives) and doesn’t get ‘spooked’ by a photograph or even a mask of someone’s face.

Apple didn’t elaborate on how it does this, and may never do to protect its IP, but this is a direct nod towards the early failings of Samsung’s iris scanner technology and, more recently, the facial recognition on the Note 8 which were both “fooled” by hackers and photos, according to reports.

Furthermore, Face ID only unlocks when you look at it. In particular, it is what Apple calls ”attention aware”; it looks for a sign that shows you’re looking directly at the camera system and want it to unlock rather than just glancing at the phone for the time, for example. Notifications will also only expand when its owner looks at the phone. 

During its first full demo at the iPhone 8 event, however, Face ID failed…

Images: Apple/Bkav



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