OCT 18, 2021 / Apple

Apple’s next iOS update might solve mask issues (with a catch)

One of the nicest features of Apple’s iPhone range of smartphones is the ability to unlock the phone using nothing more than your face. Apple calls it “FaceID”, and rather than having to remember a passcode or passphrase, you can unlock your phone with just a glance.

Android phones have something similar, with a face unlocking feature, but there’s a critical difference. For the vast majority of Android phones, there’s a straight up warning when you enable it that it can be much less secure than a fingerprint or passcode, and that’s because it’s using a simple flat photo analysis to pick that you are, in fact, yourself. That’s simple machine learning at work, and it’s been shown to be relatively easily fooled by something as simple as a photograph of you. If you’re using an Android phone with a face unlock feature, you do need to keep in mind that it’s not much of a lock, in other words. You would be better off with a fingerprint if your phone has a biometric reader, or strong passcode if it doesn’t.

Apple’s approach involves a multi-camera array at the front of the phone, taking an actual 3D image of the front of your face – and critically, the area around your eyes, nose and mouth for shape and other distinctive features – to properly and far more accurately verify you. That level of security is why Apple switched a few years ago from using fingerprint authentication on its phones (TouchID in Apple parlance) to FaceID.

Which was all well and good, right up until 2020 and the COVID pandemic came and hit us all square between the eyes. The must-have (and still sensible to wear) fashion accessory became the face mask, but that presents an issue for a phone that you’re meant to unlock with your face. Hiding away your mouth and nose – as a reminder, masks are essentially useless if you wear them under your nose – makes accurate FaceID matching all but impossible. That’s frustrating if you want to unlock your phone while you’re wearing a mask, especially as it’s the assumed “default” for iPhone devices.

It appears that Apple’s aware of that issue, and an upcoming update to iOS 14 – iOS 14.5 to be precise – will allow for an alternative, mask-friendly unlock option. As MacRumors reports, the headline feature of iOS 14.5 will be the ability to unlock an iPhone without requiring FaceID if you’ve got an Apple Watch nearby paired to the same account.

There’s two catches here. First of all, of course, you’ve got to have an Apple Watch, and while Apple does have slightly less expensive models on sale, any smartwatch is still by definition a bit of a luxury buy.

The other catch is that, rather like having Apple Pay on an Apple Watch, you’ve got to have a passcode enabled on that Apple Watch. That’s a smart enough step, as it still keeps your private information private if somebody was to abscond with both your Watch and iPhone. You’ll also be limited to only unlocking your iPhone this way – it won’t work for authenticating Apple Pay purchases without a separate FaceID or passcode authentication step.

Apple’s only just released iOS 14.4 to the wider public back on the 27th of January, so there may still be some time before iOS 14.5 goes out for actual public release. As with most iOS releases, Apple tends to push these out automatically to most iPhones, so unless you’ve manually changed the upgrade settings on your device, you’ll most likely see it as an overnight install rather that something you have to chase down yourself.

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Alex Kidman
Tech Journalist