Apple's Face ID: Cheat sheet

Face ID has replaced Touch ID on the newest iterations of Apple's flagship products. Here's what you need to know about this form of biometric security.

5 reasons to trust Apple's Face ID Face ID will completely replace Touch ID, and this can be concerning to some. Here are answers to five common questions.

Apple made a big change when it released the iPhone X: It ditched Touch ID fingerprint security for a new face-based biometric sign-on tool called Face ID. (Note: This article about Apple's Face ID is also available as a free PDF download.)

The fingerprint scanner on most post-iPhone X Apple products is gone, and in its place is a new camera array capable of capturing a face map that is, according to Apple, 20 times less likely to be hacked than a Touch ID fingerprint.

Face ID could bring us into a whole new age of biometric technology, but it isn't without its critics. Fans of Touch ID and privacy advocates have been critical of Face ID, but like it or not, it's now part of Apple's ecosystem.

TechRepublic's cheat sheet about Face ID is an introduction to Apple's new form of biometric security. This Face ID guide will be updated periodically.

SEE: Mobile device security: Tips for IT pros (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Executive summary

  • What is Face ID? Face ID is Apple's newest form of biometric security. Instead of using a fingerprint, as with Touch ID, Face ID uses the owner's face captured using the front-facing camera on iPhone X and newer devices.
  • Why does Face ID matter? Face ID has the potential to make devices more secure, and to create an all new norm for interacting with technology.
  • Who does Face ID affect? Face ID affects anyone who plans to use an iPhone X or newer Apple device. Tech professionals will need to be ready to address questions and issues that users, developers, and CIOs may have about Face ID.
  • When was Face ID released? Face ID launched with the iPhone X on November 3, 2017. It is now also available on the iPhone Xr, iPhone Xs, iPhone Xs Plus, third-generation iPad Pro, and the iPad Pro 11".
  • How do I use Face ID? Enrolling in Face ID is similar to setting up Touch ID—you scan your face and move it to slightly different angles to get a total map that the phone can recognize.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

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Image: Apple/Screenshot by CNET

What is Face ID?

Still unlocking your phone with a fingerprint? How primitive! The modern smartphone user, provided she has the latest Apple products, is unlocking her device with a glance.

Available on the iPhone X, iPhone Xr, iPhone Xs, iPhone Xs Plus, third-generation iPad Pro, and the iPad Pro 11", Face ID is Apple's next-generation biometric system that scans the face instead of a finger.

According to Apple, the likelihood of a random person being able to use their face to unlock someone else's phone is 1:1,000,000. Touch ID's odds are 1:50,000, making Face ID 20 times more secure.

While it may be more secure on paper, experience since the release of Face ID in late 2017 has proven otherwise. Proof-of-concept attacks using 3D-printed masks have been successful at cracking Face ID, and children that look similar to their parents and twins have been able to beat Face ID as well.

Sure, Face ID can be hacked, but it's still difficult, and Apple users don't need to worry about a stranger picking up their phone and cracking Face ID—it takes dedicated technology or a look-alike to put your security at risk.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

Those concerned about law enforcement using Face ID to gain access to a secured device don't need to worry either: A US judge ruled in January 2019 that forcing users to unlock devices using biometric security methods like Face ID violates both the fourth and fifth amendments to the US constitution.

Face ID maps faces in a similar way to how Touch ID maps fingerprints: It doesn't store an image, but instead makes a map of the face using data points. When those data points match up with a face, it triggers an unlock.

Apple maps faces with a new front-facing camera array called the TrueDepth camera system. In addition to an improved camera, the TrueDepth system uses a dot map projected onto the face that is captured using infrared light.

Once captured using light, the dot map is sent to the Secure Enclave on the A12 or A11 chip, where it is checked against existing records, just like a fingerprint.

SEE: Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the PDF version (TechRepublic)

Face ID can also be used for other things that Touch ID used to do, like paying with Apple Pay or verifying your identity with apps. Another important note: There is no Touch ID sensor on the devices that support Face ID, so if you want the newest flagship hardware that Apple has to offer you had better be comfortable with Face ID.

Additional resources

Why does Face ID matter?

Face ID is 20x less likely to be cracked by a random person than Touch ID, which means that Face ID makes breaking into a device much harder than it was in the past.

Sure, Face ID isn't perfect, but unless hackers start to draft 3D design teams to perfectly recreate a victim's face, hire look-alikes, or enlist family members, devices secured with Face ID are probably safe.

SEE: iPhone X's Face ID: How does it handle beards, makeup, wrinkles? Apple explains (ZDNet)

But face scanning technology is by no means new. Android has had Trusted Face unlocking since Lollipop. Google warns that Trusted Face is less secure than a PIN, pattern, or password: "Someone who looks similar to you could unlock your phone," it said.

Apple's Face ID has improved on facial recognition with its TrueDepth infrared scanning system. If Apple is correct in the power of TrueDepth and the way it stores Face ID data, it may push the industry toward wider use, acceptance, and trust of face-based biometrics.

Additional resources

Who does Face ID affect?

Face ID affects people who buy any of the Apple devices that support this form of biometric security.

Face ID also affects anyone who has to manage iOS devices in an IT environment. Tech professionals will need to become familiar with setting up Face ID and helping users understand its abilities and limitations. There are plenty of people who will want the latest Apple products, only to find themselves unfamiliar with the device due to its lack of fingerprint scanner and forced adoption of Face ID.

The only current generation Apple products to retain a fingerprint sensor are the iPad, the iPad Air, and the iPad Mini, so unless there are some of those devices in your organization, you'll have to get used to supporting Face ID.

Additional resources

Which devices support Face ID?

Face ID is currently available on the following devices:

  • iPhone X
  • iPhone Xr
  • iPhone Xs
  • iPhone Xs Plus
  • iPad Pro third-generation
  • iPad Pro 11"

These devices have specific technology (TrueDepth cameras) that are required for Face ID to function, so don't expect older Apple devices to get Face ID support in the future.

Additional resources

How do I use Face ID?

Using Face ID to unlock your device is, according to Apple, as simple as picking it up and looking at it with your eyes opened (it won't scan if your eyes are closed).

Setting up Face ID is similar to setting up Touch ID: The phone will show a picture of your face, tell you to move it in a circle so it can capture multiple angles, and will tell you when it has enough data. Unlocking a device or purchasing something with Face ID is as simple as looking at the device. It will automatically scan your face and unlock or complete the purchase.

If you have multiple looks (e.g., you wear your hair significantly different for work, remove facial piercings, or wear heavy makeup) that could affect your ability to use Face ID, but you can set up alternate appearances in the Settings app. With Settings open, tap Face ID & Passcode, then tap Set Up Alternate Appearance. You'll have to repeat the setup steps from before, and you'll be all set—just like adding an additional fingerprint with Touch ID.

Additional resources

Editor's note: This article was first published in October 2017.

By Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.