Facial recognition called a marvel, and a concern


CUPERTINO — Of all the gadgets and innovations Apple unveiled this week, it’s the company’s new facial recognition technology that seems to have sparked the most buzz.

Thanks to new cameras and sensors, the deluxe iPhone X allows users to unlock the phone by pointing it at their face. Even though it didn’t work the first time on stage for Apple executive Craig Federighi, the company’s “Face ID” technology exceeds what its competitors — like Samsung — have done with facial recognition.

But as Apple pushes the envelope with Face ID, new legal and ethical challenges have emerged, worrying privacy advocates, technologists and even members of Congress.

“Unlike a password, an individual’s faceprint is permanent, public, and uniquely identifies its owner,” wrote Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) in a public letter to Apple Thursday. “Should a bad actor gain access to the faceprint data that Face ID requires, the ramifications could last forever, particularly if Apple’s biometric technology comes to be used in other devices and settings.”

Apple said on Tuesday Face ID is the safest method to unlock its iPhone. The chances of someone else breaking into an iPhone using Face ID was one in a million, 40 times less likely than its current fingerprint mechanism Touch ID, according to Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing. Touch ID, which made its debut in 2013, will be replaced by Face ID.

Schiller said Face ID data will be stored inside the phone and nowhere else. Touch ID data was stored in a small chip called “Secure Enclave” inside the processor.

With its “TrueDepth” camera system in the front, Face ID projects 30,000 invisible dots on the owner’s face through infrared technology and maps the facial structure. Once the set-up is complete, Face ID matches its existing facial map to identify the user with every log-in attempt. Through machine learning, Face ID’s accuracy will improve, the company said.

The 3-D projection allows Face ID to unlock even if the owner wears sunglasses or hats, changes hairstyles or grows a beard. Even in the dark, the flood illuminator sensor allows Face ID to detect the face. Face ID also has been tested to detect cheats, like masks and photographs, according to Schiller.

Face ID is revolutionary, says technologist Andreas Gal, because it is the first 3-D facial recognition system brought to the mainstream. Competitors like Samsung have been using 2-D facial recognition systems — leaving loopholes such as photographs able to unlock the phone.

“Apple essentially jumped over the state-of-the-art technology which was available at the moment,” said Gal, who was the former chief technology officer for Mozilla.

But some legal questions remain. After Apple’s big iPhone reveal on Tuesday, social media erupted with concerns about law enforcement unlocking an iPhone X by pointing the phone at a suspect’s face without consent.

But police officers cannot compel people to unlock their iPhones with their face without a search warrant, according to Jim Dempsey, ‎executive director at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law & Technology. Dempsey said the 2014 Supreme Court case Riley v. Californiawhich says warrantless searches of cell phones are unconstitutional, would apply to facial recognition.

Apple says it has safeguards in its Face ID to mitigate abuses. Face ID only works when the eyes are open and look directly into the camera.

More importantly, Apple allows users to temporarily disable Face ID by gripping down on buttons on both sides of iPhone X,  according to web designer Keith Krimbel, who emailed Federighi with his concerns and tweeted Federighi’s response. Apple did not respond to questions asking to confirm this.

Despite Apple’s track record of protecting consumer privacy, attorneys worried that facial recognition will strip citizens of privacy once it lands in the hands of bad actors.

“Facial recognition technology is getting pretty cost-effective,” said Chris Dore, an attorney at Edelson who specializes in emerging consumer technology and privacy issues. “The cameras are there. The software is there. This very quickly goes downright dystopian.”

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