“All I need is your face”: Issues of privacy and security as Apple introduces FaceID.
Apple revealed its latest tech miracle, Iphone X, and alongside came a (not-so) new feature: FaceID. Apple suggests that biometric technology is the solution to security issues and personal identification. But in a data-based economy, more often than not, security conflicts privacy. Does FaceID protect our mobile phone and everything that comes with it or do we voluntarily sell our face as data ?
In the popular HBO TV show ‘Game of Thrones’, Arya Stark, one of the main characters, has progressively become a talented assassin looking for vengeance. She was trained by the Faceless Man, in order to become “No One”, meaning to abstain from her original identity as Arya Stark. But the most astonishing thing in this fictional environment is how Arya plays with the identity of her victims: By killing someone and stealing his face, Arya becomes him. Not only she fully embodies him, but she gains access to his personality as a whole. His thoughts, his hopes, his fears and his weaknesses, all can be stolen just by stealing his face. So what George R.R. Martin implied here, following the numerous theories of social psychology about the correlation between one’s face and one’s identity, is that the facial characteristics can actually be perceived as the key that unlocks the whole spectrum of human life. Or, as Arya Stark herself declared in one of the series episode while describing to her sister that she would much love to know how it feels like to be her : ‘All I need to find out is your face’.
But let’s come back to real life and the glorious year of 2017, on which Apple announced the release of yet another Iphone. The new Iphone X, as it’s called, introduces a variety of new features that have tech gurus all around the globe talking. One of the features that stood out the most was the complete lack of buttons and the deliberate front-camera that holds the key to a not-so-new technology: biometrics. The new Iphone X will use FaceID technology to unlock, taking a step further from TouchID, Apple’s previous contribution to biometrics verification. All the user has to do is bring the phone up close to his/her face. The advanced camera will create a 3D map of its owner’s facial characteristics using infrared light, therefore making it easier for the phone to identify the face under unpropitious circumstances, such as in darkness or intense sunlight. The Apple software chief engineer Craig Federighi claims that “there is only one-in-a-million chance someone else will unlock your phone”, making FaceID sound as a quite secure alternative to traditional methods of personal recognition.
However, not everything went as expected on the first attempt to present FaceID. During the usual event of Apple, during which the company presents its latest products, Federighi experienced the malfunction of the feature onstage. The phone did not unlock and asked the chief engineer for a password, forcing him to switch to a backup device, on which FaceID worked.
This moment caused a slight decrease in Apple’s stock, but the company rallied to justify the incident, explaining that there wasn’t any failure of the FaceID app and that it worked precisely the way it is designed to do.
Either way, Apple brought at the vanguard an issue that has been relevant since the dawn of the 21st century: where does privacy end and security begin? First to introduce the idea of biometrics was Alphonse Bertillon, chief of the criminal identification division of the police department in Paris, during the 19th century. Bertillon suggested the use of individual measures of body parts in order to identify criminals. As this strategy gained popularity, the discovery of fingerprints as a unique medium of identification reigned. As expected, biometrics technology was mainly used for law enforcement and legal purposes. Its installation into increasingly more devices, led to a personalized use of it for personal identification purposes (Prabhakar et al., 2003).
The technology of biometrics has repeatedly raised questions and has found many supporters, who argue that a scan of a fingerprint or an eye’s iris can insure fast and accurate results in areas such as social security, anti-terrorism and even online purchases (Ijiri et al., 2006). To begin with, I find it essential to address in a simple manner what exactly biometrics is. Biometrics is a pattern-recognition system based on an amount of certain human characteristics that comply to a set of requirements: universality (each person has to have these characteristics), distinctiveness (the characteristics should be unique for each person), permanence (the characteristics should be invariant over a certain amount of time) and collectibility (the characteristics should be quantitative measurable) (Prabhakar et al., 2003).
Subsequently, face recognition falls under the category of biometrics. Face recognition is generally used in two different ways: face verification and face identification (Ijiri et al., 2006). Face verification is what FaceID does: it verifies you as the owner of the mobile phone by recalling the stored data of your face’s analogy. Face identification, on the other hand, is for matching the input identity with an identity registered to a data system, a tactic practiced usually by security services as a way to monitor potential social danger and track down criminals or terrorists. The latter is currently largely discussed among iOS 11 disbelievers.
In Kevin W. Bowyer’s ‘Face Recognition Technology: Security Versus Privacy’, the author discusses how the terrorist attack of 9/11 changed once and forever the way citizens perceive biometrics and, more specifically, face identification for security reasons. The idea that video surveillance and camera monitoring could have averted these attacks was well established and around 86% of the population were in favor of “use of facial recognition technology to scan for suspected terrorists at various locations and public events.” (Bowyer, 2004). However, while the idea of preventing future attacks is, indeed, appealing, Bowyer raises questions to whether the practice of public biometrics through public cameras is constitutional or opposed to the fundamental right of privacy. John D. Woodard, while examining the issue of surveillance during the American SuperBowl explains that physical characteristics such as one’s face, voice and handwriting are “constantly exposed to the public”, therefore the process of obtaining data from such sources does not constitute a legal violation to their privacy (Woodard, 2001). Even if the Supreme Court has indeed found a way to naturalise the practice of public surveillance, it is the matter of consent that still puzzles scepticists (Norval, Prasopoulou, 2017).
Considering the ambiguous issue of biometrics, security and surveillance, it is easier to understand why FaceID has raised concerns. Those in favor of this new feature claim that Apple’s advanced technology offers quicker access and dispensation of complicated, long passwords that we often struggle to remember and type (Ijiri et al., 2006). As promising as it sounds, the fear of someone “stealing our face” still exists. How exactly are these data going to be used by Apple? That fear is what actuated Al Franken, U.S. Senator, to send an official letter to Tim Cook, prompting him to answer a number of questions on how exactly is FaceID going to store and use our biometrics. Remembering John Cheney Lippold and his essay on Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control (2011), discussing the categorization of online users based on algorithms that track down their online behavior in order to be used for commercial and political targeting and knowing that this is exactly how the majority of the internet works, it is definitely a matter that needs to be addressed. After all, the introduction of biometrics in everyday appliances such as our mobile phones, familiarises the population with the use of it, making it, perhaps, eager to accept these practices in open, public spaces.
In a society that goes hand in hand with its technological innovations, we have nothing to do but wait and see how this turn to personalisation affects us. It is very interesting from a humanistic point of view to observe as we turn into a society that something so representative of self as our face becomes the center of our attention. This could be a new age of egoism. Could this shape the generation of millenials, as the one closer to new gadgets and trends, to a generation of big data labourers, driven by excessive vanity ? The new iPhone, a mobile phone that always gains global attention as to what introduces to the tech world, with a feature as ambiguous as FaceID, is only a thread leading to a number of issues that could soon be emerging and it is of great importance that Media academics keep researching and discussing them.
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