Apple’s iPhone X ‘FaceID’ Facial Recognition Sparks Racism Fears

Ian Miles Cheong Contributor
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Apple unveiled the new iPhone X Tuesday at the company’s newly launched Steve Jobs Theatre, where it showcased its latest products in its yearly Apple Event. The phone, that Apple touts as the next generation of smartphones, is now under fire for enabling racist law enforcement.

Beyond its powerful new display, processing power, and a slate of new technological advancements, one of the phone’s biggest features is its Face ID. It replaces the previous Touch ID, which allowed users to log into their phone using a fingerprint instead of keying in a passcode.

Through a sophisticated front-facing camera, ambient light sensor, infrared camera, and a dot projector, the phone can recognize the user’s face to log in and to conduct payments. A mathematical model is built from 30,000 invisible dots projected onto a face, fed into the iPhone X’s neural network. It’s cutting-edge technology.

Apple said that the technology was enabled through the phone’s powerful microprocessor, which can make these calculations in real-time and even adapt to changes in the user’s appearance, lighting, and so forth.

During the demonstration, Apple’s senior vice president Phil Schiller was quick to address potential fears that the data would be stored off-site—stating that none of the data would ever leave the phone or sit on a server.

Although Apple was not explicit in mentioning Facebook, the statement was clearly made in context of Facebook’s battles against biometric facial recognition privacy laws to defend its own programs, which have enabled the social media company to store the faces of its 1.28 billion users on its own private databases.

The company added that the technology would not work on still photographs or prosthetic masks.

Despite Apple’s statement, tech journalists are fearmongering over the possibility that the Face ID technology may make it easier for police to access your phone.

“Just seems like FaceID is exquisitely tone-deaf to a populace facing law enforcement database lists, roundups, and unwarranted phone searches,” wrote Engadget columnist Violet Blue. “I mean, we’re exhausted with dread at considering Facebook’s nonconsensual facial recognition database of us and what happens with it.”

Forbes backed up these fears with claims that police intending to break into a person’s phone may be able to get easy access into a suspect’s phone by pointing it at their face. But if it’s anything like the fingerprint-based Touch ID on previous iPhones, it’s a feature that users can disable.

The publication interviewed an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute who expressed fears that the tech could be fooled by photographs.

However, given that the technology requires a facial capture in three-dimensional space, these fears appear to be completely unfounded.

A more sensationalistic piece from Forbes by John Koetsier claims that police “must be salivating at the news” of the iPhone X. He says that it’s much easier for police to aim someone’s face at a phone compared to touching a fingerprint sensor, but concedes that Apple’s Face ID technology does not work if your eyes are closed, nor will it unlock the phone if you avert your face.

It’s not the only issue tech journalists had with the iPhone X. Seemingly ignorant of Apple’s live demonstration, Violet Blue expressed fears that the technology won’t work for non-white people.

“And did they cover known issues like PoC faces, and using profile pics to unlock your phone? If not, that’s unbelievable out of touch,” she wrote, referring to technology that has trouble identifying dark skin.

As Apple noted, the technology only reads three-dimensional faces, and not photographs. The technology does not require visible light and performs 3D scanning, so the technology will work regardless of ethnicity.

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.