iPhone Facial Recognition Implications

The iPhone X and facial recognition - implications for CX and privacy

 On Tuesday, September 12th all eyes were on the newly completed campus, "Apple Park."

Nicknamed "the spaceship", our first proper look inside the campus would have been an event in itself for any other company. But Apple isn't just any other company, and on this occasion, they were unveiling something much more important: new iPhones. Apple inspires the kind of brand loyalty and advocacy that other companies dream of and the release of new iPhones – especially whole new models rather than "S" upgrades - have become the Holy Grail of Apple fandom.

Thanks to diligent leakers and analysts, the specs of the new iPhone X – released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the breakthrough first iPhone – were much discussed and all fairly well known before the event. By late July, it was being reported that the new iPhone would have facial recognition an all-screen display, Augmented Reality (AR) capabilities and wireless charging, and this all turned out to be true. However, it wasn't till after the official announcement that people really started to explore the ramifications of Apple-style ubiquity combined with facial recognition, the feature that has received the most media buzz.

The collection and use of biometric data for identification isn't new. Fingerprinting has been in practice since the 19th century, and facial recognition development began in the 1960s. However, primarily due to technology limitations, the latter didn't really see wide adoption until the late 1990s.

This century, things have accelerated rapidly. In 2000, the global biometric market had an estimated value of just $400 million, and by 2015, it was worth $10 billion. A 2015 report predicts that the market will be worth $32 billion by 2022. Although fingerprinting currently dominates this market, facial recognition is on the rise, initially seeing uptake in law enforcement and then spreading to areas such as social media, audience research, consumer electronics and retail.

The U.S. Department of State currently has one of the largest facial recognition systems in the world with over 117 million American adults – including law-abiding ones – in its database. Law enforcement agencies such as the police and FBI have access to this database but can only use it as an investigative lead rather than as a means of positive identification. But this doesn't mean the technology isn't abused. Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that police in Baltimore may have used facial recognition and analysis of social media to identify and arrest citizens during police protests in 2015.

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The U.S. isn’t the only country to adopt facial recognition on a large scale. In Australia and New Zealand, Customs uses a border processing system called SmartGate which compares faces with passport images. In China, where government overreach is a given, facial recognition technology is used to shame jaywalkers, find persons of interest and track political dissidents - which is essentially anyone who doesn't tow the party line. 


Social media sites such as Facebook have been interested in facial recognition for some time – for example, Facebook's "tagging" feature relies on it – but has also been accused of overstepping the line. In late 2016, Facebook became involved in a class action lawsuit which alleges that the social media giant's facial recognition features violate that state's Biometric Information Privacy Act. The lawsuit – which is still in court – claims that Facebook's database of 2 billion-plus faces could be sold to retailers or forced to be turned over to law enforcement, constituting a major invasion of privacy.

New technology tends to follow a standard trajectory of first being used by scientists and government agencies, before trickling down to the general public. If we follow this path, the final destination of facial recognition is retail. In other words, what once was designed to stopped criminals will soon get you pizza. Of course, facial recognition still has a place for enforcement in retail. According to a recent report in The Guardian, 59% of UK fashion retailers are tracking shoppers' faces, primarily as an act of "loss prevention", which is retail jargon for busting shoplifters.

Aside from loss prevention, there is also the promise of facial recognition improving customer experience (CX). Retailers can use the technology to identify customers and record their tastes and preferences. Imagine checking into a hotel and having the staff know all your requirements by simply walking in and having your face scanned. If payment is integrated – and the iPhone X promises to do so through Apple Pay – you would also be able to pay without using any cash or credit card. This kind of hyper-personalisation and seamless experience will all be possible when facial recognition is fully integrated into the retail environment. Another area of note is consumer emotion detection, which will allow retailers to not only recognise your face but also how you are feeling. Understanding customers' emotions is incredibly powerful in market research because it can be used to predict purchases and improve the effectiveness of campaigns. In July, it was reported that Disney's Research Division was using deep learning techniques to track the facial expressions of an audience watching movies in order to assess their emotional responses. In a wider context, imagine walking into a department store and being told what you feel like buying, possibly before you know you even want it. It's Minority Report territory, and the kind of thing marketers drool over.


Despite the advantages, Apple's announcement of facial recognition technology – which it calls "Face ID" - has set off alarm bells with privacy experts who warn that the introduction of such technology is a slippery slope.

Face ID uses the iPhone X's "True Depth" camera – a system made up of a set of sensors and a dot projector which places 30,000 digital points onto your face – to create an extremely detailed 3D map of your face.

U.S. Senator Al Franken wrote a letter to Apple CEO Time Cook after the Apple event, questioning how safe the user information would be, whether or not the data would be sold to marketers and if law enforcement would have access to the data. For the most part, Franken – and the rest of us – need not worry about these things. Apple has a pretty good track record when it comes to privacy, storing fingerprint data on devices' Secure Enclave rather than the cloud and refusing to comply with law enforcements' prior requests to break encryption.

But the problem is deeper than this. As noted by NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden, the danger is not in Apple's use of the technology itself – by all accounts Face ID is secure, robust, can be disabled under duress and is almost impossible to hack – but in how Face ID will normalise the use of facial recognition in broader contexts. So while there is nothing wrong with retailers tracking my favourite ice cream flavour, governments or hackers might also use the same technology to investigate my political activity, religious affiliation, romantic encounters or even sexual preference. This is clearly not OK and a one-way ticket to Orwell's 1984.

This year will be the true test of Face ID. KGI Securities analyst and reliable source of all things Apple Ming Chi Kuo published a research note on Tuesday which claims that Apple's future plans will hinge on public acceptance of Face ID. If Face ID succeeds, Kuo believes it will make its way into additional iOS devices next year. This would make sense – the latest MacBook Pros now have Touch ID, so it's easy to imagine them switching to include facial recognition. Notably, Android devices have had facial recognition features for some time, but when Apple enters a market, it has a legitimising effect and tends to encourage the world to follow suit.

Apple's adoption of Face ID wasn't just for the perceived security or UX benefits; it was also an aesthetic choice. By going to an all-screen design, Apple had to remove the Home Button, and thus the possibility of using Touch ID to log in. Apple might have been able to move Touch ID to the back, but saw the opportunity to pursue further innovation and took it.

The widespread use of facial recognition is convenient and has undeniable benefits for CX. But it could also lead to the normalisation and abuse of this technology and unprecedented levels of mass surveillance. By including Face ID in the iPhone X, Apple is leading the world down a particular path. The only problem is that at this stage the path forward certainly isn't clear.


Stefan Kostarelis

Written by Stefan Kostarelis

Stefan is the Content Manager at a Sydney-based investor relations firm, and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Techly, Paste Magazine, Lost at E Minor and Tech Invest.

Topics: CX Articles & Insights cyber security biometrics

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