Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Why We All Need To Be Concerned About The iPhone X\'s Facial Recognition Software

Why We All Need To Be Concerned About The iPhone X's Facial Recognition Software

The Debrief: Do we really want this to be the new normal?

The new iPhone is here and, with it, has come the usual hype. The iPhone X will cost £999, is covered in supposedly shatterproof-glass and both sides and, crucially, is unlocked with face recognition technology using infrared and 3D sensors. 

The technology actually failed at the unveiling of the device, causing Apple’s VP of software and engineering to reach for a backup phone, but let’s not get to hung up on whether or not it actually works, that seems like a minor detail, doesn’t it? The new iPhone is, as you would expect, a shining, smooth beacon of modernity and doesn’t really look all that different to its previous design incarnations. It also has an ‘A11 Bionic processor’ which is 70% faster than its predecessor. I'll be honest, I don’t actually know exactly what that means but it sounds good and almost makes me nostalgic for the days when my phone would shake and judder as I tried to switch between messages and logging into Facebook via a browser. 

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However, the launch has caused more than a few eyebrows to arch, my own included. Firstly, when a company prices something at £4.99 or in this case, one pound less than a thousand quid I’m always cynical. Can anyone really afford to spend £1,000 on a phone? Secondly, call me a Luddite but I’m skeptical about whether or not we really need yet another iPhone, let alone one that probably knows more about us than we know about ourselves. 

I don’t know about you but I never found keying my passcode into my phone to be a huge inconvenience. Is there ever anything so urgent that you can’t spare three-quarters of a second to tap a few numbers in before you look at it? Do I really want or need my phone to unlock every time I look at it? 

These days, technological advancements feel inevitable. We never ask whether we really need something to be even easier than it already is and we’re not encouraged to question whether our attachment to or reliance on our mobile devices is healthy. We’re supposed to get excited by the new, by the very idea of something being current, innovative and the very latest in technology in its own right. The equation presented to us constantly (by companies who want us to spend our money with them) is that new always, de facto, equals better. 

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes new is better. Advances in medical technology, for instance, are definitely a good thing. But these days things move so fast that what you have is old before you’ve even unboxed it, that applies to clothing and makeup as well as tech devices.

The new iPhone will reportedly be ready to read your face at any time so, soon, more and more of us will rely on having our faces scanned in order to access the things we need to function in the modern world: our emails, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and our diaries among them. So, we should probably be wondering just how safe this technology is, in terms of how difficult it would be for a thief to crack and, also, in terms of whether scans of our faces are going to find their way onto government data bases. 

I know, I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist but as this biometric technology becomes more mainstream it’s worth asking questions because in many ways what once seemed totally fantastical in a sci-fi dystopian film like Minority Report (adverts following you around based on what you’ve previously looked at/might like/will fit you) is now an everyday reality. 

Earlier this year a panel discussion at SXSW looked at this, posing the question: ‘Are Biometrics the New Face of Surveillance’. In particular, they discussed the lack of regulation of facial recognition software. The panel discussed the fact that the FBI has access to a database containing almost half a billion images which it does use for identification, some in criminal cases and others when companies want to do background checks on potential employees. Cory Doctorow, a privacy activist, said ‘it’s great that you are using photos of missing and exploited children to find them, but are they also retained for law enforcement purposes?’, making the point that there needs to be more public information about how the images held by governments are used.  

Indeed, elsewhere around the world face recognition software has been used by governments for highly questionable purposes as Clare Garvie, Associate at the Centre on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, has pointed out. ‘In China’ she writes ‘police use face recognition to identify and publicly shame people for the crime of jaywalking. In Russia, face recognition has been used to identify anti-corruption protestors, exposing them to intimidation or worse…In the UK, face recognition was used at the annual West Indian Cultural festival to identify revelers in real-time.’ Indeed, only last week it was reported that a study conducted at Stanford had found that new AI can work out whether a person is gay or straight based on photos of their faces. It's not just the gathering of images of ourselves that we should question, but how they are going to be used in the future. 

There are very real reasons to be concerned about facial recognition software becoming the new normal, another bit of tech aimed at making our already very convenient lives even more effortless. Whether you have a grand to drop on the new iPhone or not, this affects you because if you have an iPhone on a contract at some point you'll get upgraded to the iPhone X and, if you're using an Android, they'll follow in Apple's footsteps soon. The fact that Apple is putting this technology, quite literally, front and centre means it’s only a matter of time until we’re seeing even more of it and that’s why it’s important to keep asking questions and wonder whether the newest or most convenient thing is, necessarily, the best. 

Like this? You might also be interested in:

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What Is Your iPhone Actually Doing To Your Face?

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

 

Tags: Tech