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Face masks have ruined Face ID, but Apple can fix it

Apple should steal Android’s “Trusted Device” feature, so we can still unlock iPhones with masks on.

Face masks have ruined Face ID, but Apple can fix it
[Photo: engin akyurt/Unsplash]

Back in 2013, Motorola released an authentication feature for its Android phones that was brilliant in its simplicity.

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The feature, called “Trusted Device,” kept a user’s phone unlocked whenever it was near a trusted Bluetooth device, such as a fitness band or car audio system. Trusted Device was so convenient for avoiding fiddly fingerprint readers that Google (which owned Motorola at the time) eventually made it a standard feature for all Android phones.

Now more than ever, I wish Apple would copy this feature in iOS. The CDC now recommends that everyone wear cloth masks in public to prevent spreading the novel coronavirus. This threat probably isn’t going away anytime soon, which means face masks could become a fixture of American life for the foreseeable future.

All of which poses a problem for Face ID, the face recognition feature built into the iPhone X and its successors. If you need to answer a text message on a walk or want to check the shopping list during a grocery run, you now have to stop and punch in your PIN to unlock the phone, because Face ID doesn’t work through masks.

Although it’s possible to fool Face ID by registering a new face profile with half your face covered, this approach may not consistently unlock the phone, and Apple says it’s a security risk. And as The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern has pointed out, masks with faces printed on them won’t work unless the mask itself is molded around the nose and mouth.

A feature like Trusted Device would be a logical stopgap. When you’re wearing an Apple Watch, Fitbit, or other Bluetooth device, you should be able to bypass the lock screen even with a mask on.

I can understand why Apple might have avoided this kind of feature before. Compared to Face ID or fingerprint recognition, authenticating with a Bluetooth device isn’t as secure. Without a PIN or biometric authentication, anyone can unlock your phone and access sensitive data when you’re nearby. That can be a problem if you’re around people you don’t trust, or if law enforcement wants to access your phone’s contents without a warrant.

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But these are extraordinary times, and Apple ought to offer a fallback, especially if there’s any risk that people will disable their iPhone lock settings outright to avoid inconvenience. Enabling a Bluetooth unlock option would also encourage people to use Apple Pay—which, since it’s a contactless payment system, is an even more appealing option than usual at the moment.

Perhaps Apple could even mitigate the security issues with a generic Bluetooth-enabled unlock feature by offering a tap-to-unlock feature through the Apple Watch, similar to how Apple Pay works. The company already performs a similar trick in reverse, letting you bypass the PIN on an Apple Watch when your phone is nearby and unlocked.

If the coronavirus threat extends into 2021, as some experts have warned, we could see an uptick in demand for phones with fingerprint readers. Most Android phones still offer this feature, as does Apple’s new iPhone SE. Some rumors suggest that Apple may even include a fingerprint reader under the display in future flagship iPhones, following other recent Android phones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S20 and the OnePlus 8 Pro.

None of that will be of much help to anyone using all the phones stretching back to 2017’s iPhone X that use Face ID. A feature like Android’s Trusted Device would be an easy fix—and it may even help Apple sell a few more watches.

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