Apple unveiled its new iPhone X Tuesday, and it will include extensive face recognition capabilities. Face recognition (as I have discussed) is one of the more dangerous biometrics from a privacy standpoint, because it can be leveraged for mass tracking across society. But Apple has a proven record of achieving widespread acceptance for technologies that it incorporates into its phones. So what are we to think of this new deployment?
The first question is whether the technology will be successful. Face and iris recognition technology incorporated into some other phones (such as Samsung’s) has widely been seen as insecure and/or impractical. In recent years Apple has acquired several face recognition companies, and the company claims the new phones’ capabilities will include the ability to measure 30,000 infrared, three-dimensional points on a user’s face, the ability to distinguish a real face from photographs and masks, and extremely low false-positive and false-negative rates. But only time will tell if people find the face recognition functionality on this and other phones to be practical enough for widespread adoption.
Even if it is successful, some of the first-order privacy implications of Apple’s new deployment can be overblown?—?mainly, the collection of user face data through the iPhone unlocking function. First, Apple has said that the face recognition data will be stored locally on users’ phones, and not transmitted to a central database. Second, for the time being there are far bigger, more comprehensive collections of individuals’ photographs, including the state DMV databases, and photo databases maintained by the State Department and Customs and Border Protection, not to mention Facebook and Google, which store billions of photographs. For mass-surveillance purposes, those photographs would probably serve just as well as Apple’s 3-D face maps.
Of course, whatever promises Apple makes today could be rolled back in the future, not to mention ignored by other companies if the technology becomes standard. Our big worry is that face recognition will be used to identify and tag people in new, privacy-invasive contexts, leading ultimately perhaps to a pervasive system of identification that tracks Americans in their every movement. Face recognition from mobile phone unlocking could certainly in the future become a key part of such a surveillance infrastructure.
Still, at the end of the day, while storage of face templates for phone unlocking is what worries many people up front, that is not an immediate threat.