iPhone Allows Facial Unlock While Wearing Mask

John Lister's picture

Apple is to let iPhone owners unlock their phone using Face ID even while wearing a face mask. But the setting is only available to people who also use an Apple watch.

Facial recognition is now the primary way to unlock an iPhone rather than use a fingerprint or typing in a code. That's proven problematic in a time when people are increasingly wearing face masks in public places as a measure to reduce the risk of transmitting diseases.

Unlocked Watch Allows Masked Match

It was technically possible for Apple's system, Face ID, to "recognize a face" using a combination of the exposed top half of the face and the shape of the lower half below the mask. However, Apple wasn't confident enough to rely on this method alone.

Instead, it initially coded a workaround that means that when the phone detects a mask during an unlock attempt, it doesn't automatically count it as a failure for not matching. Instead it switches to ask the user to type in a passcode.

An upcoming version of iOS, the iPhone's operating system, is currently in public testing and takes a different approach for users who also have an Apple Watch. As long as the watch itself is unlocked, the accuracy threshold for the facial unlock will be heavily reduced. That should mean that simply glancing at the phone while wearing a mask will still be enough to successfully unlock the phone.

Security Measures In Place

The set-up takes advantage of a couple of security measures to protect against muggers or pickpockets being able to unlock the phone with the new thresholds. The Apple watch automatically "locks" whenever it is removed from a wrist, as detected by motion sensors.

Meanwhile the easier unlocking is only available when the Bluetooth signal between the watch and phone is strong enough that it's clear they are being held by the same person. (Source: theguardian.com)

The set-up only works for unlocking a phone. Using Face ID to authenticate a purchase on the phone will still require a full facial match without a mask. (Source: techradar.com)

What's Your Opinion?

Do you use facial recognition on any of your devices? Does it still work if you're wearing a face mask over your nose and mouth? Should we think more about the implications of masks for facial recognition through public security camera systems?

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