Facial recognition technology is nothing new, but could it finally lay passwords to rest? As Apple fans experience the joy of unlocking their phones with their faces for the very first time, we look at what Face ID may mean for the future of mobile…

Mobile manufacturers are facing up to the future, literally – with Face ID on iPhone X, Apple is the latest to offer facial recognition technology. And as bezels are stripped away, leaving less room for a home button or fingerprint sensor, a glance is now all you need to unlock your phone, activate apps, approve payments and much, much more.

But how does it work, what will it mean for the future, and how does Face ID differ from similar tech like Microsoft’s Windows Hello? We’ve gone beyond face value to find out the secret science behind facial recognition…

The history of facial scanning

While all the current buzz is around Apple’s Face ID and iPhone X, you may be surprised to learn that the first experiments with semi-automated facial recognition actually occurred in the mid 1960s. Considered by many to be the father of facial recognition and a pioneer in the world of AI, Woodrow Wilson Bledsoe got the ball rolling with a system to identify key facial landmarks on photos of people’s faces.

When a new photo was entered into Bledsoe’s system, it was able to pull up others that most closely resembled this new image from a database of existing ones. Although the technology was limited, it showed the viability of facial recognition and contributed to the birth of our current biometrics boom.

Say Hello to Microsoft

Fast forward 50 years from Bledsoe’s initial experiments and you’ll find Microsoft’s Windows Hello. Microsoft debuted Windows Hello in the Surface Pro 4 in 2015. At that time they described it as “a more personal way to sign in to your Windows 10 devices with just a look or a touch.”

Incorporating iris scanning, fingerprint scanning and facial recognition, Windows Hello is now one of the most widely known biometric authentication systems about. The iris scanning component has been a key feature of phones like the Lumia 950, 950 XL, HP Elite x3 and Alcatel IDOL 4S. But what we’re most interested in today is, how does full-on facial recognition work?

Infrared cameras and local storage

According to the team at Windows Central, Windows Hello’s facial scanning function works by bouncing infrared light off your face and picking up what comes back with a camera. The image captured is then compared to the one stored on your Windows 10 device. If it’s a match, you’re granted access in less time than it’s taken you to read this sentence.

“Windows Hello’s facial scanning function works by bouncing infrared light off your face and picking up what comes back with a camera.”

Worried about companies keeping your face on file? Microsoft assures users that “the biometric data used to support Windows Hello is stored on the local device only. It doesn’t roam and is never sent to external devices or servers. This separation helps to stop potential attackers by providing no single collection point that an attacker could potentially compromise to steal biometric data. Additionally, even if an attacker was actually able to get the biometric data, it still can’t be easily converted to a form that could be recognized by the biometric sensor.”

It’s also pretty hard to spoof. That’s because flat photos and digital images don’t register in the infrared camera.

Introducing Face ID

The Verge’s Paul Miller sums it up nicely when he says Face ID is basically like a tiny Xbox Kinect. Apple actually purchased the company behind Xbox’s Kinect camera, PrimeSense, in 2013. So, it makes sense that Face ID would use similar technology – just a wee bit more condensed.

Apple’s system is called TrueDepth. And, according to Apple, it works by projecting and analysing more than 30,000 invisible dots to create a precise 3D map of your face. An infrared camera reads the dot pattern, captures an infrared image, then sends the data to a secure enclave in the A11 Bionic chip to confirm a match. Like Windows Hello, Face ID keeps your data in this enclave on your device, rather than uploading to a server or storing biometrics in the Cloud.

Unlocking in low light? Face ID accounts for that. A flood illuminator lights your face using infrared projections that are invisible to the naked eye – even in the dark. The tech’s also designed to work with hats, scarves, glasses, contact lenses, and many types of sunglasses as well. Growing a beard? It shouldn’t be a problem. Apple say their ‘facial matching neural networks’ were developed using over a billion images as they worked with diverse participants around the world. Plus, Face ID augments its stored mathematical representation of your face over time to keep pace with natural changes in your face and looks.


But, like Touch ID before it, Face ID doesn’t completely replace your password. You can always choose to use your password instead of Face ID. There are also certain circumstances (such as when your phone has just been turned on or restarted, or when it hasn’t been in use for 48 hours) where your password will still be required.

How secure is it really?

We said it in this piece on Touch ID and iris scanning, and the same is true of Face ID: it would be foolish to believe any technology is 100 per cent secure. No authentication system is unbeatable. However, Apple has worked pretty hard on this, even going so far as to test the system with professional mask makers and Hollywood make-up artists, to ensure Face ID is fairly tough to crack.

One of the main concerns around Face ID has been around the potential for coercion. With your face on display at all times, some worry it will make it easier for muggers and even customs and police officers to unlock your phone. However, unlocking using Face ID requires eye contact. It can also be temporarily disabled by holding down buttons along the side of your phone.

What’s around the corner?

At the end of the day, a strong password remains your best, last line of defence. But we’re welcoming developments in Face ID as a convenient way to stay connected and a sign of things to come.

Perhaps, rather than replacing fingerprints and iris scanning, we’ll see a full range of biometric sensors in future devices. The phone will then choose which method will work best based on your surroundings. We may see the tech start to appear in home automation devices as well, and as things develop, maybe one day passwords will truly be gone forever.

Until then, we’re content to keep transforming ourselves into cute animals with Apple’s new Animojis. You see, security’s far from the only perk to biometrics – thanks Face ID!

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