Ethan and Grayson are 19-year-old YouTubers who spend their time creating comedy videos for their 10 million subscribers. Everyone other than their mom (and die-hard fans) struggle to tell them apart. So, apparently, does Apple. “According to Apple, Ethan and I are the same person” says Grayson looking bemused as his twin brother has just demonstrated that he is able to unlock his iPhone using Face ID. “If someone out there kind of looks like you, they might be able to get into your iPhone X” says Ethan. Identical twin YouTubers Ethan and Grayson Dolan posted a video on their YouTube channel in 2017 after the release of the iPhone X showing that Ethan could unlock Grayson’s phone using Face ID technology since it could not distinguish between them. “If you’re a twin out there, make a stand! Apple hates twins! Facial recognition hates twins!” Ethan jokes. The video goes on to show Ethan unlocking Grayson’s phone when he is not around and tweeting something embarrassing from his account. “Thumbs up for twin recognition – because Apple need to change things and make sure that facial recognition gets better so that it’s twin-proof” Ethan concludes. Apple’s Face ID technology is apparently not as secure as it seems. Be warned! If you have a doppelgänger, you aren’t the only person who can unlock your phone or iPad.
Apple released their plans to introduce facial recognition as a security measure for the new iPhone models to much excitement but also, a fair amount of controversy. The big issue for most iPhone users was about accountability and privacy – who would get the information and how they might use it. There was less concern about accuracy. According to Apple’s support site, the chances of another person being able to use Face ID to unlock another user’s iPhone is 1 in 1,000,000. These odds are subsequently lowered in the case of twins, siblings that look alike and children under the age of 13 as their features have not fully developed. Does this mean that Apple are aware that there is a potential threat to their security systems and are unable to do anything about it? Or is it only an issue if you have a twin, a sibling that looks like you, or a doppelgänger? What about if you look like your mum or dad? Most teenagers idea of hell is that their parents can bypass their settings.
According to statistic.com since 2017 (the release of the first model to integrate the Face ID software – the iPhoneX), there have been over half a billion iPhone models sold that have this technology. “Face ID is the future of how we will unlock our smart phones and protect our sensitive information” Phil Schiller, the Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Apple, explained at Apple’s 2017 special event where Face ID was announced. However, John Koetsier, a consumer technology journalist for Forbes magazine called facial recognition software on the iPhoneX “a step backwards from touch ID” but he commended the improvements of the technology in the later versions of the iPhone such as the iPhoneXR, iPhoneXS and now the iPhone 11.
To investigate the potential shortcomings of this algorithmic technology in practice, we reached out to our network on Instagram and asked if anyone had successfully unlocked someone else’s iPhone using Face ID. We were surprised at the number of replies! Tess, a 20-year-old student from London responded: “I can unlock my sister’s iPhoneXS, it doesn’t always work but if I needed to unlock it, I think I definitely could.” When asked if she thought this would be a security threat she responded: “For me and my sister? No, because we’re so close and I already know her passcode it wouldn’t be an issue for us. However, I can definitely see how there is an issue and Face ID isn’t actually that secure”, she laughed.
Gabi, 22, a student from Columbia responded that she was able to unlock her boyfriend’s (a 25-year-old French man) Face ID: “it only worked once, but it just opened, and we were both quite shocked. But we tried again, and it didn’t. Maybe it was just a one off or accidental, but I guess that means that anyone could open someone’s iPhone by chance”. This example is interesting as the respondent and her boyfriend are not only different genders, but also different races. Does this mean anyone could potentially unlock another person’s iPhone by pure chance if the security momentarily lapses, or was this a bizarre one-off?
We reached out to other iPhone users who had not had an experience like this with Face ID and asked for their thoughts on the technology. James, 21, a student from Norway replied: “I love it. It’s way faster than the Passcode and also futuristic, and, I feel very cool when I unlock my phone”. We then told them about the potential security threats that other users had had and asked for their thoughts on this. “I suppose that it problematic, but I don’t have a twin or a sibling that looks like me. I’ve never had an issue with it before, so I can’t see myself having one now” responded Anna, 22, a student from Belfast.
Similarly, we asked those who had been affected by the algorithmic issue if they still trusted the software. Gabi responded, “Yeah of course we still use it – it’s the easiest way to unlock your phone.” Similarly, Tess replied saying “Yeah I can’t see either of us not using it, passcode seems outdated at this point and even though it’s a security problem I guess, it’s not really a problem between me and my sister.”
Despite the different levels of concern, Apple’s Face ID technology has a problem – it cannot completely distinguish between twins, people that look alike, or seemingly people that look nothing alike in certain circumstances. Is this an underlying security threat to Apple and its users, or just a teething problem of software development? Our poll suggest that it will not stop consumers buying Apple products or using the technology. Apple is stepping up the R&D to iron out any of these problems and prove that they do not in fact “hate twins” – like other people, they just can’t always tell them apart.