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The leaps and bounds of facial recognition

The leaps and bounds of facial recognition

From the start, facial recognition systems were always aimed at improving security in our daily life. Following the recent announcement from Apple that their newest iPhone X phone now supports this technology, not only to unlock the phone but to also pay online, people are asking whether this is a question of “too soon” or whether face recognition is actually secure enough to identify people for online transaction tasks.

What is facial recognition?

Facial recognition is an application capable of identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame. It is typically used in security systems and is part of the same family of other biometric systems like fingerprint or eye iris recognition systems.

Comparisons with other biometric systems

The biggest advantage of facial recognition, when compared to fingerprinting or iris recognition, is that it does not require the cooperation of the test subject to work. One can search for an individual among crowds of many people in airports, for example, without the passers-by being aware of the system. Other biometric systems cannot perform this kind of mass identification. However, there are questions still to be answered with regards to the type of surveillance because the element of privacy is seen as being potentially compromised. At the farthest end of the scale are those that believe this approach may lead to a “total surveillance society”, with governments and other authorities having the ability to know the whereabouts and activities of all the citizens on a 24hr basis.

The biggest disadvantage of facial recognition, putting aside the privacy issue, is that it is far from perfect and struggles to perform under certain conditions. It is “pretty good at full frontal recognition or 20 degrees off, but as soon as you go towards profile, there have been problems”1. Other conditions where the system does not work well include poor lighting, sunglasses, hats, scarves, beards, long hair, makeup or other objects partially covering the face, as well as low-resolution images.2

Variations in facial expressions can also lead to ineffectiveness. For example, a big smile can confuse certain systems. Because of this ‘flaw’, passport photos in most countries are required to be neutral-facial expressions.

Facial recognition mobile phone applications

Facial recognition has been available for unlocking Android mobile phones for a few years now. However, as a method of authentication, it was not considered secure. Fingerprinting or typing in a code was still seen as much more secure than facial recognition. In fact, although Samsung has offered it as a method to unlock the Galaxy S8 and S8+ phones, one cannot yet use this method to access payments or secure folders capabilities. In fact, there were many instances where a simple photo of a person was used to successfully unlock such phones.

However, with the new iPhone X, Apple states that their facial recognition system is even more secure than fingerprint reading. In fact, Apple claims that the probability of someone else unlocking a phone using Face ID (their facial recognition system shipping with the recent iPhone X) is 1 in 1,000,000 compared to Touch ID (their fingerprint reader) which is at 1 to 50,0003. It uses a 3D camera which includes an infrared camera to check for depth and ignores things hats, scarves, glasses, contact lenses and sunglasses. In fact, it can work indoors, outdoors or even in total darkness.

So far, many tests have been performed which support what Apple is claiming. Face ID is, in fact, very secure and not easily hackable. However, identical twins have managed to unlock each other’s phones relatively easily4. Also, it is said that children under the age of 13 have a higher chance to unlock each other’s phones because distinct facial features are not fully developed before this age.5

The right to remain silent

While developments in facial recognition have certainly come a long way, since security has been taken more seriously than ever before, the system is not 100% perfect and has its pros and cons. As with other mobile operating systems, Apple has ensured that users have the option to disable the Face ID system completely. However, in this case there is no option to revert to Apple’s Touch ID biometric system. Instead users will be given the option of a passcode system. If you concern is to do with privacy and legal rights then a passcode is in fact protected by the right to remain silent in most countries. If you have an evil identical twin then you should opt for this to ensure that online purchases are being made by the real you!


Vincent Farrugia is a network and system manager at Deloitte Malta. For more information please visit


  1. 1.    Williams, Mark. "Better Face-Recognition Software".
  2. Bonsor, K. "How Facial Recognition Systems Work".
  3. Tepper, Fitz. "Face ID is replacing Touch ID on the new iPhone X"TechCrunch.
  5. Apple explains how iPhone X facial recognition with Face ID works (and fails) in security paper"9to5Mac. 2017-09-27.