We live in a world were simply looking at your phone can unlock it, but the way that happens varies wildly between phones. There was less “wiggle room” with fingerprint sensors — you either have the right fingerprint or you don’t. With face unlock, there are ways to do it that are very secure and others that are not. Using a 3D printed head, one reporter reminds us that most Android phones sporting face unlock are definitely in the “not secure” column.
The test started with Forbes’ Thomas Brewster visiting a UK company called Backface. There, a dome-shaped array of 50 cameras captured his head from every possible angle. Together, those images made a 3D map of his head. The company then 3D prints that file using layers of gypsum powder to create a custom bust. The process takes a few days to complete and costs £300.
Forbes tested five different phones: the iPhone X, LG G7 ThinQ, Samsung Galaxy S9, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, and OnePlus 6. There is an important factor here that the Forbes report doesn’t fully explore. Of those phones, only the iPhone X has hardware specifically for facial recognition. When you wake up an iPhone X (or the new 2018 iPhones), it activates an infrared dot projector that maps your face. Then an infrared camera scans that map to get an accurate reading. If it matches, the phone unlocks.
Android phones from Samsung, OnePlus, and others are racing to match Apple’s feature set, and it doesn’t necessarily matter if the feature is equally effective. They just need to check the box. Thus, most phones with face unlock are using the front-facing selfie camera. It’s possible to do reasonably effective facial recognition with a camera, but it’s not as secure as a fingerprint or iris scan.
Android has had face unlock for years — it actually debuted in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. However, Google has deemphasized this feature in recent years, and it’s not considered a secure unlock method anymore. However, other Android phone makers are so obsessed with countering Apple that they’re pushing mediocre face unlock. So, what does that mean? A 3D printed head can probably unlock your phone.
The Forbes test showed that only Apple’s Face ID was able to tell the difference between the 3D printed head and the real thing every time. The OnePlus 6 was the easiest to fool, but OnePlus tunes its face unlock to be very fast. Samsung’s version was slower and harder to fool, but it still unlocked. LG was in the middle.
Does this mean you should never use Android face unlock? Not necessarily. There are some phones like the Mate 20 Pro that do have IR-based face scanners. You just need to remember that not all phones offer the same level of security.
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(Top image credit: Peter Weller/Wikimedia Commons)