What is Face ID? Apple’s new facial recognition tech explained

With just a glance, Face ID can unlock Apple,s new i Phone X, giving owners a new authentication paradigm for the first time since the arrival of Touch ID with the iPhone 5. Face ID – that’s Apple’s name for the technology – uses a complex front-facing camera system and accompanying software to unlock the iPhone and authenticate purchases and payments with a mere glance.

Before Face ID, the gold standard was Touch ID

When reports began picking up steam this year that Apple would release an iPhone without Touch ID – the Home button-based authentication method that’s been around since 2013 – longtime Apple users were wary. Touch ID, which was updated with an even faster sensor in 2015, has become second-nature to iPhone (and iPad) owners  when it comes to unlocking their phones and tablets and when making Apple Pay payments.

Touch ID is a classic piece of Apple tech: It just works. It’s simple to set up and easy to use – just place a finger on the sensor to unlock your device. Since its arrival, Touch ID has played no role in any major security breaches and has helped advance the move to mobile payments.

Apple called it the gold standard for authentication, which explains why it’s included on all modern iPhone’s and iPad’s, including the new iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. With a solid track record and a 1-in-50,000 possibility that someone else’s fingerprint matches your own, why phase it out now?




How Face ID works

The iPhone X’s “notch” – the dark strip at the top of the display – actually houses a variety of sensors, including the new True Depth camera system. This includes an infrared camera, a flood illuminator, a regular camera and a dot projector. The flood illuminator shines infrared light at your face, which allows the system to detect whoever is in front of the iPhone, even in low-light situations or if the person is wearing glasses (or a hat). Then the dot projector shines more than 30,000 pin-points of light onto your face, building a depth map that can be read by the infrared camera.

This method of authentication happens in milliseconds, which is as close to real-time as you can get.There are a few tricks to the system designed to bolster security: your eyes must be open, so another person can’t unlock your phone by pointing it your face while you sleep. And your attention must be on the device for it to register a successful scan. You must be looking at the display for Face ID to work.

How secure is Face ID?

Face ID analyzes your features in real-time, processing more data points – 30,000 of them – than Touch ID measures when scanning a fingerprint. Apple worked to make sure the system can’t be spoofed by photographs and worked with Hollywood mask-makers to ensure even elaborate masks won’t defeat the system. (This PDF from Apple has more granular detail about how Face ID works.)

As a result, according to Apple, the chance a random person can unlock your phone using their face is 1 in a million; it’s 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID. But there is a caveat. If you have a twin, or know someone with a close genetic relationship with you, or you’re under the age of 13, Face ID authentication has a higher probability of being broken This doesn’t mean it will be broken – just that the probabilities change under these conditions.

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