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Interview: Apple’s Craig Federighi answers some burning questions about Face ID

Face ID is easily the most hot button topic to come out of Apple’s iPhone event this week, notch be damned. As people have parsed just now serious Apple is about it, questions have rightly begun to be raised about its effectiveness, security and creation.

To get some answers, I hopped on the phone with Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi. We went through a bunch of the common concerns in rapid fire fashion, and I’ve also been asking around and listening to Apple folks who have been using the feature over long periods. Hopefully we can clear up some of the FUD about it.

Making Face ID

On stage during the event, Apple’s Phil Schiller mentioned that Apple had gathered ‘a billion’ images to train Face ID. Federighi says that Apple went even further than that.

“Phil mentioned that we’d gathered a billion images and that we’d done data gathering around the globe to make sure that we had broad geographic and ethnic data sets. Both for testing and validation for great recognition rates,” says Federighi. “That wasn’t just something you could go pull of the internet.”

Especially given that the data needed to include a high fidelity depth map of facial data. So, says Federighi, Apple went out and got consent from subjects to provide scans that were ‘quite exhaustive’. Those scans were taken from many angles and contain a lot of detail that was then used to train the Face ID system.

I asked what Apple did with that training data.

“We do retain a high fidelity depth map of that [training] data that we protect,” says Federighi. “As we train these models and iterate on these algorithms you want raw sensor data to use and develop and optimize them.”

When it comes to customers — users — Apple gathers absolutely nothing itself. Federighi was very explicit on this point.

“We do not gather customer data when you enroll in Face ID, it stays on your device, we do not send it to the cloud for training data,” he notes.

There is an adaptive feature of Face ID that allows it to continue to recognize your changing face as you change hair styles, grow a beard or have plastic surgery. This adaptation is done completely on device by applying re-training and deep learning in the redesigned Secure Enclave. None of that training or re-training is done in Apple’s cloud. And Apple has stated that it will not give access to that data to anyone, for any price.

Which is a good a time as any to talk about another big topic: security.

The security and privacy of Face ID

One of the primary questions about Face ID that has come from many quarters is how Apple is going to handle law enforcement requests for facial data.

The simple answer, which is identical to the answer for Touch ID by the way, is that Apple does not even have a way to give it to law enforcement. Apple never takes possession of the data, anonymized or otherwise. When you train the data it gets immediately stored in the Secure Enclave as a mathematical model that cannot be reverse engineered back into a ‘model of a face’. Any re-training also happens there. It’s on your device, in your SE, period.

This answers questions about whether Apple is taking stewardship of the data of underage users in the US as well. It isn’t. It stays on device.

I also asked Federighi whether Apple had considered allowing the very security conscious to enable a mode that forced both Face ID and a passcode to be used to unlock a device. A sort of two-factor identification that combined both numeric and biometric factors into one system.

“We’ve definitely talked about it internally,” says Federighi. “We have people who that are interested [in that].”

He points out that there are scenarios you’d need to account for, like shaving your ‘mountain man’ beard and needing access. “The thing we’d need to do is you’d need a backup super long passcode…but it’s certainly something that gets discussed.”

So, not for now, but the topic has come up.

I also quizzed Federighi about the exact way you ‘quick disabled’ Face ID in tricky scenarios — like being stopped by police, or being asked by a thief to hand over your device.

On older phones the sequence was to click 5 times [on the power button] but on newer phones like iPhone 8 and iPhone X, if you grip the side buttons on either side and hold them a little while – we’ll take you to the power down [screen]. But that also has the effect of disabling Face ID,” says Federighi. “So, if you were in a case where the thief was asking to hand over your phone – you can just reach into your pocket, squeeze it, and it will disable Face ID. It will do the same thing on iPhone 8 to disable Touch ID.”

That squeeze can be of either volume button plus the power button. This, in my opinion is an even better solution than the ‘5 clicks’ because it’s less obtrusive. When you do this, it defaults back to your passcode.

This is a bit of an aside, but I’d also like to point out here that Face ID emits no visible light. I’ve seen some misconceptions on social media that it’s going to be shining a light at your face. Nope. It uses only infrared and existing light which means it will work in darkness without any more light than is coming off of the phone’s screen.

It’s worth noting a few additional details here:

  • If you haven’t used Face ID in 48 hours, or if you’ve just rebooted it will ask for a passcode
  • If there are 5 failed attempts to Face ID, it will default back to passcode. (Federighi has confirmed that this is what happened in the demo on stage when he was asked for a passcode — it tried to read the people setting the phones up on the podium)
  • Developers do not have access to raw sensor data from the Face ID array. Instead, they’re given a depth map they can use for applications like the Snap face filters shown off on stage. This can also be used in…

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