Face ID: A High-Risk Gamble For Apple

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As Americans continue to wrestle with the fallout from the Equifax data breach and what it means for their wallet, Apple on Tuesday announced a big, bold change in how they protect their own customers’ precious data.

Goodbye, fingerprint verification. Hello, facial recognition.

Apple calls it Face ID, an elaborate combination of sensors, cameras and other tools built into the new iPhone X, and it was unveiled Tuesday during a special event on the company’s campus in Cupertino, Calif. The system is designed to, among other things, create a map of your face that is so intricate and precise that you can use it to do everything from unlocking your phone to verifying purchases through Apple Pay, the company’s much-hyped mobile payments tool.

The unveiling didn’t go perfectly, however, as the presenter’s first attempt to unlock a new iPhone X with Face ID didn’t work, but that glitch is hardly the only reason to be skeptical about Face ID and its ability to move the meter, especially as it relates to Apple Pay.

Facial recognition’s flawed past

Apple isn’t the first to experiment with combining facial recognition technology and mobile payments, and earlier efforts have been far from perfect. For example, Samsung – the company behind Samsung Pay, perhaps Apple Pay’s highest-profile competitor – introduced facial recognition technology with its Galaxy S8 line of phones earlier this year, only to see it proven to be significantly flawed. Multiple reports indicated the phone’s facial recognition tool could be fooled by a photo of the phone’s user. That’s a big deal, and it’s a scenario Apple absolutely must avoid repeating with Face ID.

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Given the focus put on Face ID during Tuesday’s event, Apple is clearly confident they’ve built a better mousetrap. They claim Face ID’s fail rate is 1 in 1 million – a giant leap, they say, from fingerprint Touch ID’s 1 in 50,000 rate. They even showed they had worked with top mask makers in Hollywood to test the tool’s effectiveness. They know they have to get this right. Given Apple’s track record, there are plenty of reasons to believe they will, but it is far from a guarantee.

With Apple Pay, technology wasn’t the problem

During the presentation, Apple made it clear that Face ID would be integrated with Apple Pay. Instead of touching the home button to verify your identity when making a purchase, you just look at the phone.

It’s hard to see this moving the needle much in terms of convincing people to use Apple Pay more, however. Surveys have shown that many Americans are wary of mobile payments because of security fears, but the truth is that Apple Pay and their competitors already are more secure than using plastic. After all, it’s far easier to forge someone’s signature than it is to fake their thumbprint. The challenge of changing people’s minds about mobile payment security is less about better technology and more about better education. In many ways, that problem is every bit as challenging.

Ultimately, Apple Pay’s biggest issue goes beyond technology: People simply don’t see why they should use it. Until Apple and other mobile payments providers can convince consumers mobile payments are safer and more convenient than just using plastic, Apple Pay’s growth will remain stuck in low gear. I don’t expect facial recognition technology to change that.

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The bottom line

Face ID feels like a high-risk move for Apple without a huge amount of upside, especially in the wake of the Equifax breach. First of all, I’m not sure that anyone is going to buy an iPhone X because they can unlock the phone with their face or because they can turn their face into a talking emoji. More important, however, the Equifax debacle has put data security front and center in people’s minds. If Apple’s facial recognition tool proves to be significantly flawed, it will really damage Apple’s hopes not only for Apple Pay expansion but for the iPhone X as a whole. People simply won’t use a payments tool with faulty security features – and they certainly won’t spend $1,000 for a phone if they don’t think it is safe.

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