Face ID Knows How to Keep a Secret

More Details on iPhone 8 Facial Recognition Emerge
Credit: Perfect World Pictures

In thriller spy movies, like Jason Bourne, big tech companies sell out to government agencies, but reality is a bit more nuanced.


In the 2016 movie, Jason Bourne, there are two parallel plots. In the first, Bourne trying to find out more about his past, including who killed his father. But the very same government agency that may have done that, the CIA, has also funded a social media company that grew to become a tech giant, called Deep Dream. The CIA Director (Tommy Lee Jones) has a deal with Deep Dream’s CEO (Riz Ahmed) to mine their data for national security even as the CEO is touting how his company is fanatic about customer privacy.

Ring a bell?

Of course the key to an entertaining spy movie is to take bits and pieces of half-truths and weave them into a thriller that seems plausible on the surface. However, if you’re interested in how things generally go at the CIA and NSA, I recommend General Michael Hayden’s excellent book, Playing to the Edge. General Hayden is one of the technically sharp, good guys who came to Apple’s defense during is kerfuffle with the FBI in early 2016.

From Apple's privacy page.
Image credit: Apple

Apple’s Stance

In real life, the tension between national security and consumer privacy continues. The introduction of Apple’s iPhone X with facial recognition as user authentication has mildly re-opened the discussion because many people have a vested interest in how good (or not so good) this facial recognition technology will be. And what Apple will do with the faceprint data.

This resulted in Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) asking Apple some questions about how Apple will handle faceprint data and what steps Apple has taken to protected against various kinds of attacks on its facial recognition system. Here’s a link to the letter sent to Tim Cook on September 13th

Accordingly, it would seem, Apple has greatly updated iys Privacy Web page on September 19. The preamble encapsulates the very concerns that citizens have been articulating for years. From Apple:

And so much of your personal information — information you have a right to keep private — lives on your Apple devices. Your heart rate after a run. Which news stories you read first. Where you bought your last coffee. What websites you visit. Who you call, email, or message. Every Apple product is designed from the ground up to protect that information. And to empower you to choose what you share and with whom.

This is not to say that Apple doesn’t cooperate with law enforcement when a crime is being investigated. But what Apple’s stance does reinforce is that ordinary, law-abiding citizens have a fundamental right to keep their private information from being exploited for financial gain and idle perusal by strangers. As Apple says, “It’s a fundamental human right.”

Apple's new Face ID Security White Paper.
Page 1: Apple’s new Face ID Security White Paper.

With regard to facial recognition, Apple has posted a document, dated September, 2017, entitled “Face ID Security” which is linked from “Apple’s Approach to Privacy.

Topics covered include:

  • Face ID and passcodes
  • Face ID security
  • How Face ID unlocks an iOS device
  • Face ID and Apple Pay
  • Face ID Diagnostics
  • Other uses for Face ID

For additional discussion, see Andrew Orr’s “Apple’s Face ID Security White Paper Should Allay Fears.”

We’ve know for years that Apple is technically deep in system security, and this document, in Apple’s typical transparent fashion, goes a long way towards explaining how Face ID actually works and protects the user.

From time to time you may see silly articles about how Face ID can be easily spoofed. I would dismiss them. Of course, there may yet be strides to be made in improving the current technology. But if you want to know where Apple stands, how it implements its policies and how it has developed privacy technology, especially Face ID, investigate the links I’ve pointed to above.

Jason Bourne would approve.

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