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Critics are wrong to slam iPhone X’s new face tech

Mike Elgan | Nov. 5, 2017
They should acknowledge that Apple is doing face scanning right with Face ID.

Apple’s new iPhone X reads faces. And privacy pundits are gnashing their teeth over it.

The phone’s complex TrueDepth image system includes an infrared projector, which casts 30,000 invisible dots, and an infrared camera, which checks where in three-dimensional space those dots land. With a face in view, artificial intelligence on the phone figures out what’s going on with that face by processing locations of the dots.

Biometrics in general and face recognition in particular are touchy subjects among privacy campaigners. Unlike a password, you can’t change your fingerprints — or face.

[ Further reading: What is Face ID? Apple’s facial recognition tech explained ]

Out of the box, the iPhone X’s face-reading system does three jobs: Face ID (security access), Animoji (avatars that mimic users’ facial expressions), and also something you might call “eye contact,” to figure out if the user is looking at the phone (to prevent sleep mode during active use).

A.I. looks at the iPhone X’s projected infrared dots and, depending on the circumstances, can check: Is this the authorized user? Is the user smiling? Is the user looking at the phone?

Privacy advocates rightly applaud Apple because Face ID happens securely on the phone — face data isn’t uploaded to the cloud where it could be hacked and used for other purposes. And Animoji and “eye contact” don’t involve face recognition.

Criticism is reserved for Apple’s policy of granting face-data access to third-party developers, according to a Reuters piece published this week.

That data roughly includes where parts of the face are (the eyes, mouth, etc.), as well as rough changes in the state of those parts (eyebrows raised, eyes closed and others). Developers can program apps to use this data in real time, and also store the data on remote servers.

The controversy raises a new question in the world of biometric security: Does facial expression and movement constitute user data or personal information that should be protected in the same way that, say, location data or financial records should be?

I’ll give you my answer below. But first, here’s why it really matters.

The coming age of face recognition

The rise of machine learning and A.I. means that over time, face recognition, which is already very accurate, will become close to perfect. As a result, it will be used everywhere, possibly replacing passwords, fingerprints and even driver’s licenses and passports for how we determine or verify who’s who.

That’s why it’s important that we start rejecting muddy thinking about face-detection technologies, and instead learn to think clearly about them.

Here’s how to think clearly about face tech.

Face recognition is one way to identify exactly who somebody is.


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