Posted on September 15, 2017 at 4:49 PM
During the last week, Apple revealed their new generation of iPhones. While this range was met enthusiastically by the public, Apple’s latest feature, a tool which allows your phone to recognize the users face, raised some cause for concern.
The suspicion around FaceID is entirely valid considering how this tool can be utilized by everyone from Apple, to retailers, and even governmental agencies. It’s no secret that popular retailers have been looking for a way to identify consumers’ faces to track their consuming patterns. Since the new iPhone requires you to unlock the phone using their FaceID feature, Apple would have a database of millions of users’ facial images they can easily use this database to their advantage. A more worrying concern is that police would now be able to easily unlock any users phone by simply holding it up to their face without their consent.
Yet the biggest fear surrounding Apple’s FaceID is government surveillance. Over the last few years, law enforcement has expanded their biometric system to include facial recognition, and it is estimated that half of all Americans are already enrolled in a governmental facial recognition database. In addition, one in every four American Police departments already has the ability to use facial recognition searches. While Facebook also underwent the same scrutiny due to their powerful facial recognition system, Facebook does not control the cameras of the devices we use. This is how it differs from Apple’s FaceID. Apple’s new feature makes it the first company who will have a facial recognition system, as well as a database of millions of users.
This high-profile achievement might make Apple indispensable to governmental surveillance. Governmental agencies could target Apple’s powerful database and issue orders to identify certain individuals based on their FaceID. Apple will be able to easily search all devices that receive a match, and then give the agency the user’s GPS location based on matched devices. While Apple has always fought for the protection of their users’ privacy, it will be powerless if ordered by courts to comply. Governmental agencies are already aware of the possibilities that FaceID poses as Senator Al Franken already sent Apple CEO, Tim Cook a letter this week questioning how Apple will balance the technology’s security and privacy concerns.
The last decade has seen a major increase in mass scan methods used by the government, which was confirmed by Edward Snowden revealing the Upstream program. Upstream is a program under FISA section 702 which allows the NSA to scan through all internet communications to and from the United States. This is used to watch certain targets’ emails, IP addresses, and cybersignatures. In addition to this, Reuters confirmed in 2016 that Yahoo complied with a governmental order to build customized software that scans all incoming and outgoing emails for specific content that had a target’s digital signature.
Despite the unconstitutional and unlawful nature of these scans, the government continued in their pursuit. Likewise, the FISA court readily complied with all governmental requests. All while the public either do not agree or are totally unaware that the government is performing mass scans on millions of emails.
While text like emails and text messaging has been the focus of governmental surveillance, Apple’s FaceID has the power to change that. Apple now has the power to generate and store millions of facial prints while at the same time controlling the cameras that generate these face prints. This could make Apple an irresistible target for a new method of governmental surveillance.
Yet there are ways that Apple and the public can protect themselves from this happening. Apple should first do everything possible to insulate themselves against any broad governmental orders to perform face scans. Any face prints generated through FaceID should only be stored on the device in question and should be encrypted to such an extent that Apple cannot access them remotely, even if ordered to do so.
Many people doubt if this will be enough. There has been a lot of disputes between Apple and the FBI regarding encryption. Apple can also update its Transparency Reports to include data regarding any orders they receive to turn over any FaceID data to the government, either in conducting mass scans or turning over specific FaceID data. This way they can regulate any particularly troubling warrants in the future.
Lastly, the duty remains with the public. The public should demand that Congress should remain the ruling body when it comes to mass surveillance. This could start with limiting or undoing the Upstream program when its authority expires this coming December. Yet the focus should remain with limiting and regulating any surveillance using FaceID as it can have powerful repercussions in governmental hands.