Can Apple Unlock Promise Of Facial Recognition?

By Tripp Mickle and Robert McMillan 

CUPERTINO, Calif. -- Apple Inc.'s new iPhone X ties the future of its flagship device to facial-recognition technology that could alter how people interact with their gadgets -- if the company can get it to work right.

Facial-recognition is the most prominent new feature in the 10th-anniversary iPhone Apple unveiled on Tuesday. Called Face ID, it will be the primary tool to unlock the nearly $1,000 iPhone X, which is scheduled to start shipping Nov. 3. A camera system with depth sensors project 30,000 infrared dots across a user's face that computing systems use to create a mathematical model that is stored securely on the phone. Each time users hold the device to their faces, the technology verifies the mathematical model before unlocking the phone in an instant.

As with other new smartphone technologies it has adopted in the past, Apple isn't the first to use facial recognition. But it hopes to be the best, popularizing a technology that has had a mixed record on other gadgets.

Considering iPhone users on average unlock their devices 80 times a day, the success of Face ID could make or break the device, analysts says, especially after early users get their hands on it and begin sharing their experiences publicly.

Apple on Tuesday inadvertently demonstrated the potential pitfalls. During a demonstration of the technology, the device failed to fully unlock the first time Apple's top software executive Craig Federighi used it before the audience. He resorted to typing in a passcode before switching to a backup iPhone X that he unlocked seamlessly with Face ID.

"It's got to work," said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "From a security standpoint and convenience standpoint, this is their idea of where the future of the smartphone goes."

If it catches on, the facial-scanning technology in iPhone X could unlock other changes in how we use smartphones. In one small example, Apple also is using the system to capture facial expressions and use them to animate images of chickens, unicorns and other common emojis. Those animojis, as Apple calls them, can be captured and shared with friends.

The rise of facial-recognition technology has raised privacy concerns, particularly in China, where authorities are using it on streets and in subway stations to deter and identify lawbreakers. Systems like those connect vast networks of surveillance cameras and sensors with databases of images and identifications.

In contrast, Apple said users' facial information will be kept securely on their own devices and not on Apple servers or elsewhere in the cloud where it might be vulnerable to hackers.

Still, unlike passwords, face and fingerprint scans and other biometric data can't be changed if they are compromised, and that has some privacy advocates concerned.

Facial-recognition technologies have been used for more than five years in consumer devices, including some smartphones that use Google's Android operating system. But the technology that has been rolled out so far has faltered in security tests, said Marc Rogers, who previously discovered flaws in Apple's Touch ID system and now heads information security at Cloudflare Inc. Google warns users that with its face-recognition system, called Trusted Face, "Someone who looks similar to you could unlock your phone."

Face-recognition technology is also used in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 10 operating system and Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy S8 mobile phone.

One problem -- which doesn't affect Apple's device -- is that many other products with facial recognition rely on a single camera, which can be fooled into authenticating a photograph of a user under certain conditions, Mr. Rogers said. Fingerprint readers faced similar security questions because they were considered unreliable until Apple improved on the technology with its Touch ID fingerprint reader in 2013, Mr. Rogers said.

Apple says it has overcome the single-camera issue by mapping the depth of faces. Marketing chief Phil Schiller said the system is sophisticated enough to adapt, even if someone changes their hairstyle, puts on glasses or grows a beard. He said it can't be tricked by photographs or facial masks and requires the user's attention, meaning the phone won't unlock if eyes are closed or someone is looking away.

The chances an iPhone X could be unlocked with Face ID by someone other than its user are one in a million, Mr. Schiller said. That compares with one in 50,000 for Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor iPhones now use, which sits on a home button that Apple is eliminating for the iPhone X.

Mr. Rogers of Cloudflare said the three-dimensional verification system of Face ID should defeat the "flat image attack" with photos that foiled other facial-recognition systems. However, he said Apple's switch to a new login method was risky because the Touch ID was used to not only unlock devices but also authenticate sensitive apps and make purchases with Apple Pay.

"They might be going too far this time," Mr. Rogers said. "We'll see."

Investors are excited about the face-based functions on the new iPhone. They have sent Apple's stock up 39% this year betting the company's new devices will compel many existing iPhone owners with two-year-old devices to buy a new one.

"Assuming it works well, reducing friction" unlocking the phone "is a key reason people upgrade to new electronic devices," said Sean Stannard-Stockton, chief investment officer at Ensemble Capital Management, a Burlingame, Calif., wealth manager that counts Apple among its largest holdings.

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