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Tech Savvy: Facial recognition technology of iPhone X cause for concern

An attendee checks out a new iPhone X during an Apple launch event in Cupertino, California, U.S. September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Face it, Apple, not everyone loves your new iPhone X.

Your latest flagship smartphone boasts many drool-worthy improvements, such as an OLED screen that promises to make colors more vibrant, optical image stabilization and more.

But replacing older iPhone models' biometric fingerprint lock by doing away with the home button and using facial recognition instead is taking things a tad too far, privacy advocates say.

The physical home button below the touchscreen has been a mainstay of the iPhone ever since the smartphone's introduction in 2007 and in more recent models can scan a user's fingerprint.

Starting with the iPhone 5s in 2013, Apple's Touch ID feature can also be used for App Store and iTunes Store purchases after the user's fingerprint and credit card information is saved.

Touch ID isn't foolproof, as security experts have pointed out that removing a user's finger or thumb from its owner by physical separation, such as cutting it off, can also unlock the iPhone.

But the Face ID authentication system of the iPhone X is a game-changer. Now, you can unlock the recently unveiled smartphone by simply looking at its front-facing camera system.

Apple promises that Face ID is secure and more convenient than Touch ID by projecting invisible dots onto the user's face, which are read by an infrared camera and checked for a match—a system, Apple says, makes unlocking and paying "fast, easy and intuitive."

Face ID works only when the user is looking at the iPhone X by creating a 3D map, is resistant to spoofing by photos or masks, and its A11 bionic chip learns to recognize changes in appearance, such as wearing eyeglasses or a hat, or if the user grows a beard—wow.

Not only that, but Face ID will reveal notifications and messages for your eyes only, keep the screen lit when you are reading, and lower the volume of an alarm or ringer because the iPhone X figures if you are close to look at the screen, you are close enough to hear sounds it makes.

But what about if someone were to hold the iPhone X to the smartphone owner's face, say, while that person is asleep or unconscious, and unable to give consent to unlocking the phone? Or what if the iPhone X user had an identical twin—would that twin be able to unlock it, too?

The probability someone would be able to trick the iPhone X into unlocking with a photo or a mask of the authorized user is "one in a million," according to Apple, and therein lies the problem.

It's that near infallibility that makes the iPhone X problematic because law enforcement officers can unlock a suspect's iPhone X and use incriminating information stored on the device to prosecute its owner by simply showing the $1,000 smartphone the suspect's face.

And in this over-sharing society where uses of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts a multitude of photographs of themselves that are in a lot of cases public, so it is conceivable an accurate 3D model of a user's face could be made someday to break into the iPhone X.

Senior writer for Wired magazine Andy Greenberg recently joined the program "CBS This Morning: Saturday" to point out the pitfalls of Face ID, which is built into the new iPhone X.

"Apple seems to have this, like, war on inconvenience where even just having one button on your phone is too many," Greenberg said on the show. "They want the (user) experience to be so seamless ... that you don't even notice the security."

By comparison, choosing to use a six-digit code to secure older models of the iPhone may be more inconvenient, but it is much harder to crack without Apple's assistance, as the FBI knows in the high-profile cases in which the suspect's smartphone is in possession but not accessible.

Coercion is a concern with Face ID. A suspect can refuse to reveal his passcode to authorities because of the Fifth Amendment protection of self-incrimination but not his face.

Concealing one's face is not a matter of routine for most—unless, perhaps, you are an ice-fishing Minnesotan bundled up head to toe in a state where it is winter nine months of the year, in which case Face ID technology doesn't concern you, but staying warm on the lake does.

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