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Face ID vs. Face Masks

David Porter, reporting for the AP two weeks ago (again, yesterday in coronatime):

In a letter to CEO Tim Cook obtained by The Associated Press, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Patrick Foye said riders have been seen removing their masks to unlock their phones using face-recognition technology, despite a recent update by Apple that simplifies the unlock process for people wearing masks.

Previously, an iPhone user wearing a mask would have to wait a few seconds as face recognition software tried to identify them before they eventually could enter a passcode. In response to the pandemic, Apple’s iOS 13.5, released in May, automatically presents the passcode field after a user swipes up from the bottom of the lock screen. Also, Apple Pay Express Transit, introduced last year, allows riders on some bus and subway lines to pay with their iPhone or Apple Watch without having to wake the device.

I’m not sure what such a letter accomplishes other than giving Foye the ability to say he did what he could. Face ID isn’t just software, it’s hardware, and I don’t think any of the existing Face ID iPhones can be updated, via software, to somehow work to authenticate faces while wearing a mask.

It’s interesting to ponder what a disaster, publicity wise, the iPhone X would have been if COVID-19 had hit in 2017. It’s one thing for hundreds of millions of Face ID devices to be made inconvenient by face masks, years after introduction. It would have been another thing altogether for Apple to introduce Face ID amidst a worldwide face mask mandate.

It’s certainly possible that future Face ID systems will be able to securely authenticate you while wearing a face mask. If we can recognize people we know while they’re wearing a mask, a computer system can too — but anything that makes it harder for us to recognize a face is going to make it harder for Face ID too, and face masks are obviously disguising. Will this year’s new iPhones be able to do it? I doubt it. All of the hardware for this year’s iPhones was set in stone long before COVID hit.

Monday, 24 August 2020