Apple facial recognition now works with masks, expanding privacy issues

Technology make it easier for police to quickly unlock iPhones for people they detain

Updated: February 11, 2022 - 12:01pm

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Apple iPhone users who routinely wear masks will soon find it easier to unlock their devices and use its payment service, but not without a privacy cost.

The iOS 15.4 beta, which currently works only on newer iPhone models, tweaks its facial recognition feature to recognize owners wearing masks by "authenticating the unique features around your eyes," CNET reports.

Owners previously needed to also have an Apple Watch to unlock their phones while masked, under a tweak the company issued last spring.

The Verge says that while Apple immediately asks users installing the iOS 15.4 beta if they want to enable masked recognition, the company also warns that it's not as accurate as full-face recognition.

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Privacy and civil liberties advocates highlighted the risks of Apple's facial recognition when it debuted, and New York City police illustrated the potential of passcode-free unlocking in summer 2020.

They forcibly unmasked a resident who took photos of them without masks on and held his iPhone to his face to unlock the device, though it wasn't clear whether they succeeded, according to Mashable, citing surveillance video. Courts have reached different conclusions on whether biometric data is comparable to passcodes for 4th Amendment purposes.

The resident, Anshuman Bhatia, shared the experience in a Twitter thread.