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Hackers respond to Face ID on the iPhone X

Published Sep 21st, 2017 11:48AM EDT
iPhone X Release Date
Image: Apple Inc.

Everyone is still coming to grips with the implications of iPhone X users having to rely on their face to unlock the device once Apple’s new top-of-the-line model starts shipping in November.

Apple has left questions unanswered about how the feature will work, since that pricey new version of the iPhone will be all screen and, as such, lacking a home button — a button that would otherwise, of course, have been able to be used for Touch ID fingerprint authentication. And in addition to leaving questions unanswered, Apple has also been somewhat coy in its rollout of the feature.

In a piece this week for Forbes — ”No, Apple’s Face ID is Not a ‘Secure Password’ ” — scientist JV Chamary takes the tech giant to task for the way Apple exec Phil Schiller laid things out at Apple’s recent event. “The chance that a random person in the population could look at your iPhone X and unlock it with their face,” Schiller said, “is about one in a million.” As Chamary notes, though, that doesn’t tell the full story when it comes to the new feature and the security of the device.

A random person, okay. But that stat doesn’t appear to speak to any vulnerabilities that a specific person — like a thief, Chamary notes — could exploit via Face ID.

Beyond that, meanwhile, the reaction keeps coming — everything from at least one Senator’s letter to Apple asking for more details about how the feature will work to a video Huawei posted on its Facebook page in recent days that seems to be making fun of the feature.

The assessment from the security community so far, meanwhile, appears to be somewhat mixed — with experts offering praise for some aspects of the new feature but also plenty of cautionary notes.

Troy Hunt, who writes about Web security and similar topics, told BGR: “Face ID isn’t necessarily better or worse in terms of security. Rather, it’s different… Face ID gives consumers another choice in terms of which form of biometric authentication they use, and like Touch ID, it offers them a means of protecting their device without the usability friction of a PIN. As for how easily fooled it will be, we’ll have to wait until it’s in the hands of testers to know for sure, but it would be very surprising if there are any easily exploitable risks found.”

For at least one member of the security community — Marc Rogers, the head of information security at Cloudflare — his reaction to Face ID? “For hackers like me, it’s game on.”

Hackers, you’ll recall, quickly broke into phones secured via Touch ID, which led to headlines like this one from The Verge: “Your phone’s biggest vulnerability is your fingerprint.” Rogers, though, contends that Face ID doesn’t need to be perfect. “It just needs to be secure enough.”

“This is why we still use locks to secure doors even though people can pick locks,” he says. “However, the jury is out with Face ID. Until people get a better grasp of how secure it is, my suggestion would be to stick to complex passwords for high-risk things.”

Meanwhile, here are what he sees as some of the pros and cons of Face ID at this point:

Among the positives:

  • The data that the feature relies on gets fed into a machine learning model that learns about your face. Meaning, according to Rogers, it should be able to compensate for changes like facial hair, for example.
  • Apple keeps data about your face on the device and doesn’t send it to the cloud.
  • Face ID also uses eye detection to make sure that it’s a live, alert human and not  someone faking it with a model or picture.
  • Per Rogers, Apple has also added a duress feature where if you press the power button five times, the phone clears its “secrets” preventing Face ID or Touch ID from unlocking the phone. “This,” he said, “is great.”

As to the negatives:

  • Rogers: “This is form before function. Touch ID was a great design, because it uses a process that fits into your normal usage. What’s more natural than touching the home button? Taking a selfie in the grocery line feels awkward and unnatural. People avoid using things that are awkward or extra work. This is why before Touch ID, less than one in five even had a pin on their device.”
  • Moreover, he says, Apple did not do this (Face ID) to improve security. “They did this because they couldn’t find an acceptable way to put the Touch ID sensor into the new screen without interfering with their design goals.”
  • Apple’s duress feature is untested in court.
  • Your face is your most exposed “credential.” And “it’s not clear yet if this biometric can be ‘secure enough’ for high risk tasks like unlocking password managers or accessing your bank.”
Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.