How does Face ID actually work?
On September 12th Apple announced its new flagship device, the long awaited iPhone X. The device has multiple interesting new features but the one most talked about was the facial recognition system, FaceID. The idea of widespread facial recognition security systems has been a mainstay of sci-fi movies for decades. Now it’s quickly becoming a reality especially considering the immense popularity of the X. But how does it actually work?
Previously users could unlock Apple devices, buy apps on App Store and authenticate Apple Pay transactions by using Touch ID. Itself a groundbreaking innovation, Touch ID is a fingerprint recognition feature introduced back in 2013 and implemented by installing a fingerprint sensor built into the traditional home button. Despite some early critics calling it unnecessary Touch ID became really popular and has been present on every iPhone since the 5S model. With the radical change in the new model’s design and the removal of the home button Apple has decided to replace fingerprint authentication with facial recognition.
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The new system uses the built in TrueDepth camera to automatically look for the users face after waking up the device or after a supported app requests identification. The camera locates the user’s face, confirms authentication by detecting that eyes are open and directed at the device, then the dot projector on the camera system projects more than 30,000 invisible dots onto the face to build a unique facial map. The device also uses an invisible infrared light to better identify the user in the dark, the infrared camera also creates a sequence of 2D images and depth maps. Afterwards the system encrypts and randomizes the data and creates a device specific pattern before storing it on a secure enclave on the device. After scanning the users face the system performs facial matching using neural networks designed specifically for that purpose to check if it fits the registered user. All of that happens in the secure enclave, a specific space on the Apple A11 chip, which FaceID uses instead of the cloud to ensure data security.
The system is designed to work with various clothes, hats, scarves, eyeglasses and contact lenses. Thanks to the infrared camera it even works in complete darkness. FaceID is also equipped with another neural network designed to check for attempts to trick the system with masks or photos of the user. In short it’s another step towards both simplifying the process of authentication and making it more difficult to breach. Apple boasts that the new system is so accurate that there’s only a one in a million chance of another person being able to unlock your device, a significant upgrade over TouchID’s rate of one in fifty thousand.
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There have been some claims of possible limitations of the system such as an identical twin or close relative being able to unlock each other’s phones. Another possible flaw is related to children under the age of thirteen, because their facial features are still developing. Some have even alleged that a specifically designed mask could also trick the system. However all that really proves is that FaceID, like any other security system is not foolproof. After all, practice makes perfect.