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Apple's face recognition could pose privacy concerns, experts say

With new technology comes new concerns about privacy, and the iPhone Face ID is the latest to spark those worries.
Apple iPhone face recognition face ID
Face ID on the iPhone x is a new way to unlock and authenticate your phone. Photo: Provided by Apple

Apple news always makes waves, but the recently announced Face ID feature struck a particular chord with experts concerned about privacy implications.

One fear voiced again and again was the possibility that police could gain access someone’s phone without their direct permission, simply by holding it up to their face.

Apple says that Face ID won’t work if your eyes are closed, or your face is turned away, or you hold up a picture. But still, this new tech is sure to change more kinds of protocol than just how you check your texts.

Brett Kaufman, an attorney with the ACLU Center for Democracy, said that with new tech like this, privacy laws constantly become a new ball game that requires new rules.

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“This is a different version of a similar problem that was introduced when these phones started having the thumbprint unlocking,” he said. “There are two sets of issues presented by this technology: Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues.”

The majority of court rulings concerning the Fourth, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fifth Amendment, which includes the right to remain silent, were made in a pre-digital world, Kaufman said.

The courts are adapting, but slowly. Some courts have ruled that a thumbprint ID is not the same as providing testimony — meaning anything police find on your phone if unlocked that way is not the same as you verbally communicating the information.

Now, Face ID will be another issue for courts to consider. Though Kaufman is hopeful the rules will adjust —“I think technology has been, for the last 25, 30 years, a real driver in changes for the law,” he said — it will just take time.

Face ID could also be the first foray into a world full of face scanning, which concerns Kaufman.

“Part of that’s on the public, part of it is on us and part of it on technology companies to educate people about consequences of this,” he said. “One thing we definitely want to avoid is [people thinking], ‘I use facial recognition to unlock my phone, what’s the big deal if they want to take everybody’s picture when they get on a plane.”

Those are very different situations, Kaufman said, and even if face scanning doesn’t always have the same implications, using your face to unlock your phone could make you think having your face scanned is never a big deal. 

Jonathan Frankle, a PhD student at the Internet Policy Research Initiative at MIT, said that in general, face recognition poses a number of privacy concerns, but it depends on how it's deployed.

In this case, he thinks it may actually make phones more secure, but other uses pose problems, like if police use the technology to track people via security cameras.

Still, that potential future use is not Apple's fault, but just how technology evolves. 

"For any technology like this, there are ways of using it to improve privacy and to erode privacy," Frankle said. "The fact that this is a question people are asking, even if in this case it's 'no,' reassures me that we as a society are being vigilant about how facial recognition is rolled out."

 
 
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