iPhone X's Face ID Inspires Privacy Worries — But Convenience May Trump Them : All Tech Considered Advocates are concerned facial scan data could be stolen, or that a successful rollout could make consumers more comfortable with less innocuous, less accurate uses of facial recognition technology.
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iPhone X's Face ID Inspires Privacy Worries — But Convenience May Trump Them

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iPhone X's Face ID Inspires Privacy Worries — But Convenience May Trump Them

iPhone X's Face ID Inspires Privacy Worries — But Convenience May Trump Them

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Apple's new device, the iPhone X, has a feature that's getting a lot of attention. The phone has face recognition technology built in. You can unlock it by looking at it or rather letting it look at you. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, privacy advocates worry the new technology could be abused.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: When it comes to giving the public confidence in its Face ID system, the company had a major fail when it demonstrated it for the first time in public last week. Apple Vice President Craig Federighi went to open his phone by looking at it. It didn't work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRAIG FEDERIGHI: Let's try that again. Whoa, whoa, whoa, let's go to back up here.

SYDELL: Apple says the fail had to do with stagehands moving the phone around before the demo. Apple says it's built the most secure and easy to use facial recognition technology on the market. Fatemeh Khatibloo, an analyst with Forrester, believes the company.

FATEMEH KHATIBLOO: What we know about Apple is that they tend to get this stuff right.

SYDELL: Khatibloo thinks the reason this feature hasn't been widely adopted so far is because other companies haven't done a good job.

KHATIBLOO: Android has had face recognition unlock for a while now. It just hasn't been a very good or consistent experience.

SYDELL: For example, critics of Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 say it's easily fooled with a photo of the owner. Apple's new phone won't be available until early October, but the company says a photo won't work because the iPhone uses 3D scanners. Still, privacy advocates are worried.

Senator Al Franken wrote a letter to Apple's CEO, Tim Cook. Among his concerns is whether the face recognition data could be taken out of the phone and used for other purposes. Apple says that won't be possible because the data will be stored locally in the phone. So even Apple can't get it. Still, that doesn't entirely reassure privacy advocates like Claire Garvie with the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. She worries if Apple's Face ID does work well, people will get more willing to accept other uses for the technology.

CLAIRE GARVIE: Forgetting that other uses of face recognition may be less accurate, may be more privacy-invasive, may make mistakes.

SYDELL: For example, Garvie says many retailers have been quietly rolling out face recognition technology to identify shoplifters. But that's not error-free.

GARVIE: So imagine you look very similar to somebody who is enrolled in a known shoplifter database, and the machine thinks you're that person. So every time you walk into one of these retail stores, you might get hustled out of the store.

SYDELL: Well, a lot of customers were hustling into Apple's store in downtown San Francisco this weekend. I asked a few shoppers how they feel about the new feature, and most felt like Jess Bendit.

JESS BENDIT: Is it going to take off because it's convenient - probably. I mean a lot of people - you know, hey, we're all narcissists often, so the idea that my phone could recognize me personally - that's super flattering I guess.

SYDELL: And Apple has been marketing itself for some time as the company that values user privacy. That's a message that's gotten through to Apple fans like Nick Reynolds.

NICK REYNOLDS: I think it's cool that they're pushing the boundaries of technology again. And given it's Apple, they're going to do it in a way that's, like - respects privacy compared to, like, anybody else who might do it. So that's cool.

SYDELL: At least at this store, there was a sense that resistance is futile. Face ID is the future. And if it's convenient and fast, convenience will trump privacy. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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