Is Face ID on Apple iPhone X as secure as the fingerprint sensor?


At the launch of the much-awaited iPhone X, Apple replaced the biometric-based Touch ID data protection method for your iPhone with something that looks at your face and decides it’s you. The facial recognition system called Face ID is what the iPhone X gets (though the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus continue to use the Touch ID via the home buttons). This method basically understands that you may be looking at your phone, which is a cue for it to unlock the device so that you can access apps, messages, make calls and so on. This isn’t the first phone to have it—many Android phones have deployed facial detection in the past too, but Face ID is potentially a bit different.

The keyword here is “attentive”—the iPhone X detects when you may be looking at your phone in a purposeful manner and not just generally in that direction. For this, the iPhone X uses depth sensing cameras which are installed above the OLED screen on the phone. The A11 Bionic chip’s neural engine will scan your face to match various parameters. While setting up the phone, you will need to identify your face to the phone, and using artificial intelligence, these depth sensing cameras will supposedly detect it’s you even if you grow a beard or wear a hat.

It is supposed to work as well if you are standing in an area with very low or inconsistent ambient lighting. Apple says this is extremely accurate, and the chances of someone bypassing it are significantly lesser than the fingerprint method.

But what was the need for Face ID? The iPhone X does not have a physical button below the display, something like the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus continue to have. Apple could have done what many Android phones have done and installed the fingerprint sensor in the power key on the side or on the back (that surely would have been a repulsive idea for Apple’s design boffins). However, facial recognition, Apple says, is more accurate on the iPhone X. It is believed to be immune to being conned—a mask replica of someone’s face will perhaps not unlock their iPhone. Also, it’ll detect changes in your facial structure along the way. This is good news, at a time when facial recognition cameras have often been bypassed using masks or photos which were detected as the actual person’s face.

However, for all the new tech that Face ID works on, there are some questions that this new security method poses.

We all remember the entire furore over the fact that Apple did not break into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone (which was protected by a Touch ID fingerprint combination), leading to a heated debate between the company and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). With Face ID, that may no longer be the case. Keeping this example in mind, the Face ID method is much easier to break for the police and other law enforcement and investigation agencies by forcing someone to look at the phone. But this may help not just the police. You could be forced to look at your phone by just about anyone who wants to perhaps access your private data.

What happens if you get a bit drunk at an office party on a Friday night, and one of your colleagues decides to be a bit naughty and peels your eyelids back just enough to make it look like an “attentive” you to the iPhone X? We are not alleging that this is actually the case, since we haven’t used the Face ID tech in detail to understand whether this is a problem or not, but this potentially could be one of the shortcomings.

It is believed that there is a lot of artificial intelligence that will prevent inaccurate readings of the face in front of the phone, but there is always the chance that you may unlock your phone by accident and forget to lock it again for a few seconds—that could be enough of a window for someone to snoop into your phone without you realizing it.