Secure Or Not Secure, That Is The Question

One of my proudest moments is when I was 17-years-old and became the first teenager in the world to achieve 1m App Store downloads with my facial recognition app, Face Rate. The app eventually went on to get nearly 7m downloads in total before I licensed the software to News Corp and got offered the position of Head of Digital Product Innovation, but that story’s for another time.

Back then, I was just testing a bunch of different technologies; experimenting with building apps during the early days of the App Store. This new environment allowed me to play with unusual ideas in a world where people were taken by the novelty of being able to grill a digital steak on their phone’s screen or drink an electronic pint of beer by tilting their phone near their mouth.

Nearly a decade later and Apple’s thrown facial recognition technology into the headlines again at its recent Keynote where it launched the iPhone X. Granted, not all the headlines were great; there were one or two about the technology failing on stage during its live unveiling. That aside, the launch really got me thinking about how much technology has advanced over the last 10 years. Facial recognition’s gone from being a fun experiment for myself and others in the early days, to being adopted by some of the biggest companies in the world. Snapchat uses the tech to create playful filters which has encouraged hundreds of millions of downloads, and now Apple’s taken it a step further by introducing it for security functionality.

Facial recognition technology uses a whole bunch of libraries that are built to recognise many different features on a face; be it eyes, nose, mouth, or whatever. It maps all these points using different algorithms; literally hundreds of thousands which are within the software. These locate different parts of your face and computerise this into metadata. That’s how things like Snapchat filters work; they’re taking the metadata off the back of an image or face and apply silly dog ears and the like, which become very accurate. One of the reasons I think this technology’s so commercially successful is that it’s one of the first real user cases of augmented reality (AR) in action. AR’s just a layer of technology over real life and Snapchat pioneered this into the limelight. It’s perhaps a bit faddy, but a great example of how this would potentially work on a much wider scale.

The fact Apple’s latest handsets can now replicate your face digitally and use this as a security measure to grant you access to your phone – or bank account – is taking things to a whole other level. The difference between how difficult it is to replicate your face versus your fingerprint makes your device – all being well – so much more secure. To understand this, you have to think about how different our biometric thumb prints are from one another, well everyone’s face is different on another scale. This would suggest security will be tighter than ever.

Of course, as with all technology, there are potential pitfalls that need to be considered. Not just the fact your phone might not recognise your face and deny you entry, but the biggest fears I have are: will these devices continue to be hacked like we’ve seen in the past and, if they are, how damaging will this be? If my phone gets hacked and someone has access to my biometrics, they can go take loans or mortgages out in my name without me knowing; this kind of infringement could literally ruin peoples’ lives. Consumer credit reporting agency, Equifax, was involved in a huge hack in the US recently, whereby the company had a breach of more than 140m people. That’s not just emails and passwords, it’s things like social security numbers as well. That stuff is obviously incredibly valuable to us and in the wrong hands is very dangerous. Now, all of a sudden, we’re starting to add biometric data into our phones using things like Apple’s facial recognition. The level of security here needs to be unshakable.

For me, this is such a risky area. Everyone’s so focused on the positives, that they’re maybe not taking these issues into account. With the power of Apple, I agree there’s a very small chance of things going majorly wrong, but if it does – the risks are very real.

What’s cool to observe following the Keynote, however, is just how powerful these devices are becoming. The iPhone X is – in some cases – more powerful than a top-of-the-range laptop! This means the different things you can use your phone for is increasing at an exponential rate – a far cry from the digital pint. It’s clear Apple’s primary focus is on making a huge push into AR; and that opens up loads of exciting avenues. The updates in the App Store show us Apple now has dedicated space for AR-specific apps, which has already seen some incredible games being launched and we can expect a lot more.

Back when I was working on Face Rate, the technology was so premature that it actually didn’t work so well. That’s simply due to the processing powers of the iPhones and other devices on the market at the time; they just weren’t there yet. I thought it was a genuinely novel idea and believed if I could make it work on a mobile device, it would have the potential to go mainstream. The reality is though – from what I was doing to where it is now – it just wouldn’t have been possible.

Today, there are a million and one opportunities, especially as the technology continues to improve as it naturally will over time. Usually when something’s used by Apple, it’ll go mainstream. What might have started as being niche and something the company created itself, normally ends up popping up en masse. We just have to look at the digitising of music, and the life changing impact of the App Stores for evidence of this. If it’s effective and works well, then you can absolutely expect others to follow suit.

Apple’s recent event certainly indicates the company sees facial recognition as a massive part of what it becomes in the next 5 – 10 years, meaning we’re potentially on the cusp of another exciting and innovative new era. Let’s just hope it’s a secure one too.

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