Can facial recognition replace Touch ID? [Friday Night Fights]

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iPhone facial recognition
Unlocking your iPhone could be as easy as looking at it.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Recent iPhone 8 rumors have left the future of Touch ID unclear. Some indicate it will remain, but in a new position, while others warn that Apple plans to replace it with iris scanning and facial recognition.

Friday Night Fights bugThese aren’t entirely new technologies; other manufacturers have been offering them for years with mixed results. But can Apple deliver a solution that’s simple, fast, and secure enough to replace the fingerprint scanner?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we battle it out over whether the iPhone can bid farewell to Touch ID.

Can facial recognition replace Touch ID?

Killian Bell: I don’t think Apple will replace Touch ID with iris scanning and facial recognition just yet, despite what recent rumors have told us. It seems like fingerprint scanning is still the quickest and most secure method of biometric security for now.

But I don’t think it should be ruled out. Iris recognition is said to be safer than fingerprint scanning, and though the technology isn’t quite perfect for now, it’s only a matter of time before it will be. And what could be simpler than holding your phone in front of your face?

Samsung has proven with the Galaxy S8 series that iris scanning works, and works fast. It’s not as fast as Touch ID just yet, but again, it will get there. Don’t you think it would be a simpler solution in the long term?

Luke Dormehl: It totally depends what kind of “long term” you’re talking about. Right now, I think it would be a massive mistake to replace Touch ID with facial recognition — unless Apple has technology that’s way ahead of what anyone else can manage. The combination of accuracy and speed of Touch ID is incredible and facial recognition just can’t match that.

Even if it takes just a couple of seconds of holding the phone in front of your face, that’s annoying compared to being able to grab your phone, press the Touch ID sensor, and having it ready to go by the time it’s in front of you. And that’s without even starting on the security issues…

All biometrics face challenges

Well, let’s not forget fingerprint scanning had security issues early on. But anyone who’s used iris scanning on a Galaxy S8 can tell you it doesn’t take a couple of seconds. Assuming you line up your eyes correctly (which you get used to doing), it takes less than a second.

Doing away with Touch ID makes room for a larger display and other components. And fingerprint scanning isn’t perfect; it doesn’t work when your phone is wet (that’s a problem on a water-resistant phone) whereas iris scanning and facial recognition work fine.

Luke: Any biometric solution is going to have challenges. Personally, I’d accept the wet fingerprints challenge over the issue of not being able to unlock your phone in the dark because of lack of sufficient light. Also, isn’t the Galaxy S8 the facial recognition system that can be fooled by holding up a still image of a person?

Killian: Well, that’s rubbish. Facial recognition uses infrared sensors, which work just fine in the dark. Even Microsoft’s disappointing Lumia smartphones can do that. And yes, the Galaxy S8 can supposedly be unlocked with a still image, but not with iris scanning.

But Samsung denies it’s that simple. You can’t just print out a picture of someone from their Facebook profile and unlock their phone with it. And need I remind you that there have been plenty of Touch ID hacks using things like Play-Doh and even printer ink.

Apple won’t ship a flawed solution. I’m not suggesting we ditch Touch ID now in favor of technology that still needs improvement. But I think it could happen — and have its benefits — within the next few years as the technology evolves.

Need for speed

Luke: The problem is finding a way to do it that’s as secure and fast as Touch ID. Sure, it could conceivably be done over time, but there are plenty of things to be solved first. Just as a small example, there’s the fact that some facial recognition technologies have struggled to identify black people with the same accuracy that it manages with white people. Can you imagine the scale of controversy if there was an “Apple so racist”-gate? That could happen if unlocking your phone turned out to be easier for some than for others.

Personally, I’d love to see a Touch ID sensor embedded in the display. That’s also a technology we’re told is a couple of years away, but it seems an altogether better solution. Facial recognition is neat, but couldn’t it be used as a backup for extra security rather than your means of unlocking a device?

Killian: I’m not denying there are kinks that still need to be ironed out. But fingerprint scanning has its downsides, especially as larger, edge-to-edge displays become the norm. It certainly would be great to see an iPhone display with Touch ID embedded within it. But we’re assuming it will be as good as the Touch ID we have now, and that may not be the case. Plus, looking at your phone to unlock it is incredibly cool.

Anyway, let’s hand this one over to the readers now. Do you think facial recognition can replace Touch ID in the foreseeable future? Or would Apple be crazy to give up on fingerprint scanning? Let us know down in the comments.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly ideological cage matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which viewpoint is better.