Business Technology

Monday 25 March 2019

iPhone analysis: Are we sleep-walking into a world of facial recognition?

Apple's latest range of mobile phones, the iPhone Xr, Xs and Xs Max
Apple's latest range of mobile phones, the iPhone Xr, Xs and Xs Max
Apple iPhone Xs and Xs Max
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

I’ve just finished my first hands-on session with the new iPhones. They look and feel great.

But there’s one feature that I’m surprised more people haven’t focused on. It’s something that Apple is driving and which could lead to a major societal change.

It’s facial recognition.

“Your face is your new passport,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told us in the Steve Jobs Theatre today.

And thanks to Apple’s ‘Face ID’ feature on its new iPhones, he might be right.

Face ID is fast becoming a mainstream identity feature. Almost without comment, millions of people now accept a scan of their face as their primary security and identity proof.

It has quickly expanded from being a way to open your phone to a way for paying for things in shops, or downloading apps.

Apple was the first to advance fingerprint recognition as a widely accepted form of security and identity. It appears now to be doing the same with facial recognition.

The wider implications of this should be obvious.

If a Face ID scan is now an accepted, mainstream way to pay for something in a shop (using Apple Pay on your iPhone) or on a website, why won’t it be similarly acceptable in other scenarios?

Supposing a supermarket chain offered a permanent 10pc discount for those who registered their facial recognition imprints, connected to a credit card or bank account, to save themselves time and fees? So that you would walk into the supermarket, go to one of the self-serve payment terminals, scan your items and simply ‘pay’ with a face scan?

For 10pc off, I’d probably do it. And so would most others.

Presuming this sort of commercial and retail activity takes off, it may not then be long before the state comes knocking. While many of us don’t trust government bodies to proportionately (let alone securely) deal with sensitive citizen biometric data like facial scans, as the basic technology becomes widespread and proven, resistance may melt away.

Might a quick facial scan on a bus be quicker and more convenient for me than the glitchy card-reading machines they currently use? Possibly.

I wondered about this question aloud on Twitter during the IPhone launch on Wednesday and some serious tech executives weighed in on the subject.

“Good question,” responded Alex Stamos, one of Silicon Valley’s most respected security executives, previously at Yahoo and Facebook.

“Is there a danger in training people that a technology is safe and private if the subsequent implementations are likely to be harmful? [There are] parallels to engineers who propose “secure” backdoors and soften the ground for insecure real-life implementations.”

Obviously, there are dystopian fears. Many of us dislike overt facial scans. There is something slightly diminishing about standing for your face to be assessed and cleared. An error, or non-recognition, somehow seems worse than that of a faulty card. It might feel like a higher tier of rejection.

And that’s before the clear worries about how state agencies would want to ‘join the dots’ to save themselves work by simply co-opting another agency’s already-formed giant facial database.

Is there any doubt that government departments, from justice to social welfare to employment and health, would start trying to make a facial scan a starting point for interaction with them?

Hospitals might ask for a facial scan before treating you. Gardai at road checks would seek to do a quick facial scan ‘just as a matter of course’. Interactions with benefits or welfare agencies would do the same.

It wouldn’t take much more advancement in the technology for CCTV cameras to have a good shot at identifying most people walking down the street. Who could imagine a Garda Commissioner who wouldn’t want that extra layer of surveillance, piously called ‘potential crime prevention’?

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