New York’s MTA wants safer COVID-19 iPhone unlocking, and so should you

A prominent public transportation system has asked Apple to improve the iPhone’s face-based unlocking system for public use. Here’s how that should happen. …

When Apple introduced its flagship iPhone X three years ago, it replaced fingerprints with facial recognition, pitching “Face ID” as even more secure than “Touch ID.” Within a year, the face-mapping tech came to additional iPhones and iPads, helping Apple ditch its finger-scanning Home buttons while following the industry-wide trend of shrinking phone and tablet bezels.

Face ID worked quite well in late 2017, and thanks to subtle hardware and software improvements, it now unlocks devices nearly as quickly as Touch ID — when it works. On the software side, Face ID matches any prospective user against a 3D map made from two initial face scans and whatever subsequently scanned modifications (such as hair changes) it associates with the registered owner. It now also allows for a second facial map based on an “alternate appearance,” and supports a wider array of device angles and orientations than before.

But when confronted with a user’s face mask, Face ID typically refuses to unlock. Apple was made aware of the issue well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but apparently chose not to address it, perhaps because complaints were only coming from a handful of regions where masks were being used. Once the pandemic hit, Apple was forced to respond, and ultimately offered a workaround: Face ID now gives up as soon as it detects a face mask, quickly giving the user a keypad to manually enter the device’s passcode.

I’ve been living with this workaround system since it debuted in iOS, and it’s not great. Whether I’m trying to glance at a shopping list or answer an incoming text message while wearing a mask in my suburban neighborhood, using my iPhone in public has become a frequent hassle. In denser urban environments, users are apparently feeling compelled to remove their masks just to keep moving through public places at an acceptable pace while using their devices.

It would be easy for Apple to try and punt on this issue by saying that people should stop using their devices so much, but the reality is that Apple pushed smartphones towards ubiquity in public spaces, made them critical for navigation and public transportation, and enabled them to serve as payment conduits and transit access devices. People now rely on quick and safe access to their iPhones at any point, an expectation Apple is responsible for addressing.

Now New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is publicly appealing to Apple to improve iPhones to improve Face ID’s performance during the pandemic. In an open letter to Apple, MTA chairman Patrick Foye noted passengers have been removing their masks to unlock their phones — an issue that obviously exposes their faces to the subway’s shared air, and vice-versa. As an interim solution, Foye asked Apple to collaborate with the MTA to publicize iOS’s passcode workaround. But he also “urge[d] Apple to accelerate the deployment of new technologies and solutions that further protect customers in the era of COVID-19.”

I reached out to the MTA to see if it had any specific solutions to suggest to Apple, and a spokesperson deferred to Apple on the details. But it’s clear that something needs to change, and the MTA wants Apple to explore “additional technological changes that can be made to make signing onto the phones faster and more efficient for everyone.”

My own view is that there are at least several solutions that could make sense in the near term, as well as one that’s a “correct” option for next-generation devices. I’ll underscore that time is of the essence here; waiting until next year or requiring the purchase of a new or different phone isn’t viable. The pandemic is active now, and a fix should happen quickly, not “eventually.”

  1. Adjust Face ID to do half-face scanning. Ideally, Apple could use the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera system to analyze twice as much detail in the upper half of a face, but if not, offering an optional setting to permit unlocking with an upper half match at current fidelity doesn’t seem unreasonable.
  2. Offer a different unlocking solution for public transport. Apple could leverage its Maps database to geo-fence public transportation hubs and — with user permission — automatically switch to a special protocol when riders enter stations. The protocol might let a user open a single, less secure app with a single button tap, or never attempt to access Face ID at all in favor of a quicker passcode.
  3. Use another form of biometric security besides Face ID. Even if Apple’s not prepared to add Touch ID back into iPhones — a step that many have speculated would be possible due to advances in in-screen fingerprint scanning — it could let an Apple Watch user automatically unlock an iPhone without Face ID so long as the Watch was in proximity of the iPhone. Apple already allows the iPhone to unlock the Watch in this way after a Face ID scan, and the Watch can unlock a proximate Mac, so adding the iPhone to this list wouldn’t be difficult.

I have zero doubt that Apple engineers have already been working on alternatives such as these, and probably well in advance of the COVID-19 outbreak. But there may be some temptation on the company’s part to hold off on a simpler solution in the name of even higher device security, or releasing a device with both Face ID and next-generation Touch ID using an in-screen fingerprint scanner. Many users, including me, would consider that an ideal alternative to Apple’s current hardware.

In the midst of a pandemic, however, Apple shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of a good solution, nor should it force users to consider replacing their devices just to feel comfortable unlocking them in public. Just as the company rushed to get an exposure notification/contact tracing system in place with Google, a software-based alternative to the Face ID system needs to be a priority.

COVID-19 may not have touched your life or anyone you care about, but the pandemic has broadly revealed that relying on facial recognition for biometric authentication — and other purposes — isn’t always a good idea. Going forward, Apple (and others) need to embrace solutions that take public health into account, rather than unnecessarily creating risks every time people unlock their phones.

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