Facial recognition technology for unlocking smartphones

Facial recognition technology can be used in place of a password or PIN to unlock smartphones and other devices

The smartphone camera scans the user’s face, and the user then authorises the device to process, collect and store their biometric facial data.

When using facial recognition technology to unlock a smartphone, the device will use its built-in camera to compare the face it visualises with the data stored. If the data matches, it identifies the user as the legitimate user and unlocks the phone.

What are the benefits of this technology?

The main benefits of using facial recognition to unlock a smartphone are ease of use, high rates of positive identification, effective protection of a person’s private device and avoidance of passwords or PINs.

What are the risks of this technology?

One of the main risks of the use of facial recognition technology to unlock smartphones is that it can be less reliable for people with darker skin. The technology can be far less precise and has a tendency to misidentify people with darker skin, due in part to datasets lacking adequate images of darker-skinned people. This has serious implications. If a facial recognition mechanism fails, the wrong person may be able to access a phone, or the right person may not be able to. 

The risk of discrimination has been identified for many other uses of facial recognition technology, including border control or identification of people in public spaces.

Another risk of using biometric technology for unlocking smartphones is non-consensual unlocking. In this case, a person who is restrained or arrested can be made to unlock their device without their consent.

What is biometric data?
In general, biometric data means data that relates to the physical characteristics of a person that can be measured, recorded and quantified, such as their face, fingerprints, palmprints, eye irises etc. Biometric data can be used to identify a person and verify aspects about them, such as their age, gender or mood.

What is facial recognition technology?
Facial recognition technology aims to identify or observe individuals by detecting the features associated with a human face. The technology analyses and measures distances between specific facial features and generates a unique representation (a facial signature’) of each human face. This facial signature can then be compared against a database of stored images. Other types of facial recognition technology can assess the age of the individual whose face is being scanned or track their emotions and facial expressions. The technology can be used with the intent to uniquely identify individuals, but does not always accurately identify individuals.