Is iPhone set to get fa­cial recog­ni­tion?

Ap­ple could be about to take the next step past Touch ID when it comes to se­cur­ing our phones, writes Dan Moren

Macworld - - Contents -

It’s never too early to start spec­u­lat­ing about the next iPhone, even if it’s not due out for more than six months. We’ve got the usual ‘edge-to-edge dis­play’ and ‘vir­tual Home but­ton’ ru­mours that seem to cir­cu­late about ev­ery iPhone, but we’ve also no­ticed re­ports con­gre­gat­ing in an­other area lately: bio­met­ric se­cu­rity.

The iPhone has, of course, of­fered bio­met­ric se­cu­rity in the form of Touch ID since the iPhone 5s was re­leased in 2013. That tech­nol­ogy ex­panded to the iPad and, more re­cently, to the MacBook Pro.

But in re­cent weeks we’ve seen a few sug­ges­tions that new tech­nolo­gies might supplement – or re­place – Touch ID in the up­com­ing iPhone. Is that likely, or wish­ful think­ing?

Iris scan­ning

It’s a sta­ple of sci­ence fiction: you put your eye up to a cam­era, which scans it and com­pares it to the pat­tern of your iris that’s on file. Fu­tur­is­tic sound­ing, sure, but iris-scan­ning is ac­tu­ally an es­tab­lished bio­met­ric tech­nol­ogy. It’s akin to Touch ID, in the sense that the sys­tem takes an im­age of your iris and then con­verts it into a math­e­mat­i­cal model that it stores. Then, when you try to use the sys­tem, it com­pares that model with what it’s see­ing.

Un­like its close cousin, reti­nal scan­ning, iris scan­ning can be done with tech­nol­ogy that’s easy to build into a phone – in fact, a few smart­phones al­ready fea­ture iris-scan­ning ca­pa­bil­ity us­ing near­in­frared LEDs, in­clud­ing the Mi­crosoft Lu­mia 950 XL and the doomed Sam­sung Galaxy Note7. The tech­nol­ogy al­lows users to un­lock a de­vice sim­ply by look­ing at it. It can even work seam­lessly with glasses, con­tact lenses, and some sun­glasses.

So it’s ab­so­lutely plau­si­ble that Ap­ple could in­te­grate a sim­i­lar fea­ture into a new iPhone. There are some chal­lenges to over­come: for ex­am­ple, few iris scan­ning tech­nolo­gies cur­rently on the mar­ket do any sort of live-tis­sue ver­i­fi­ca­tion, mean­ing that it’s pos­si­ble they could be de­feated us­ing high­qual­ity im­ages or videos. And given the ubiq­uity of high-res­o­lu­tion cam­eras in smart­phones and else­where, pic­tures of your eyes are ar­guably much eas­ier to ac­quire than your finger­prints.

Fa­cial recog­ni­tion

In the­ory, fa­cial recog­ni­tion is even eas­ier to im­ple­ment than iris scan­ning, since all it re­quires is a tra­di­tional cam­era and your face. How­ever, the method Ap­ple is ru­moured to be im­ple­ment­ing is said to be ‘3D laser scan­ning’ hard­ware. That tech­nol­ogy en­com­passes a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, none of which seem to cur­rently be avail­able in con­sumer prod­ucts.

This re­port was buoyed in par­tic­u­lar by the fact that ear­lier this year Ap­ple snapped up Is­raeli firm RealFace, which spe­cial­izes in fa­cial recog­ni­tion.

Sev­eral smart­phones and apps of­fer fa­cial recog­ni­tion via a stan­dard cam­era. The prob­lem with those so­lu­tions is they’re of­ten not par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to de­feat, es­pe­cially us­ing video.

The ru­mour sug­gests that this laser-scan­ning tech­nol­ogy could be used for aug­mented re­al­ity ap­pli­ca­tions, but to us it all seems a bit thin. A fa­cial recog­ni­tion sys­tem could be more ro­bust un­der con­di­tions in which Touch ID doesn’t work all that well, but given the time and money that Ap­ple has in­vested in pro­mul­gat­ing Touch ID, it seems less likely that the com­pany would ditch it in favour of a new, untested tech­nol­ogy.

The ru­mour cy­cle

Ap­ple ru­mours tend to follow a pat­tern. Many start out ex­pect­ing or push­ing some­thing rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but the re­al­ity, when it ap­pears, ends up be­ing more pedes­trian. So we’re scep­ti­cal about ru­mours of new bio­met­ric fea­tures. It’s pos­si­ble Ap­ple will roll out these new tech­nolo­gies, but we’d guess that they’re far­ther away than the ru­mours sug­gest. Plus, adding in­frared LEDs and laser scan­ners would in­crease the iPhone’s power con­sump­tion and add to its cost.

That said, there are some com­pelling ar­gu­ments for more bio­met­ric se­cu­rity. Iris scan­ning or fa­cial recog­ni­tion, es­pe­cially if in­te­grated along­side fin­ger­print recog­ni­tion, could pro­vide ad­di­tional op­tions to those who don’t want to, or more im­por­tantly, can’t use Touch ID, due to per­sonal pref­er­ence or ac­ces­si­bil­ity chal­lenges.

But hope­fully the smoke of these ru­mours points to some sort of fire that Ap­ple is at least in­ter­ested in push­ing the bounds of se­cu­rity tech­nol­ogy. Our de­vices are the gate­way to much our per­sonal and pri­vate in­for­ma­tion, and pro­tect­ing them is of the ut­most im­por­tance.

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