Al Franken gets in Apple's face over iPhone X's Face ID

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A serious array of on board sensors, cameras and lights make FaceID work on the new iPhone X.

The biggest and most controversial part of the Apple news conference on Tuesday involved the new iPhone X’s powerful facial-recognition capabilities. It made me think of a long-gone reporter at 6ABC’s Action News, Hank Sperka, a blunderbuss of a guy who, when asked to show his ticket at the door of a posh party, famously said “I don’t need a ticket — my face is my ticket!”

Apple’s novel FaceID system, built into the brand new iPhone X, may be similarly exploited — to help you gain entrance to theaters and pay for groceries. And with almost half of our populace’s personal information now compromised by the horrifying hack of the Equifax database, a super-sophisticated face recognition system might also become the best line of defense for consumers when they’re charging merchandise online or trying to update a financial account.

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A serious array of onboard sensors, cameras, and lights make FaceID work on the new iPhone X.

The system could replace the no-longer-secure “What’s the last four digits of your social security number?” and “What’s your mother’s maiden name?”

FaceID also promises to be far faster than today’s “two-step” verification system which involves requesting — and then entering — a special code number to a user’s device.

But some — like tech-savvy and privacy-focused Sen. Al Franken — are wondering: Do we really want Apple to act as our surrogate parents, and take on this security role?

On the surface, it seems Apple has done its homework here, maybe more so than Samsung, whose face recognition system is featured in its brand new Galaxy Note 8, which hits stores on Friday. In decent lighting, the Note 8 has done well for this tester, recognizing me with glasses off or on. But when sitting in the relative dark at the recent Billy Joel ballpark concert and hoping to snap some shots, I was able to unlock the phone with Samsung’s face ID method only if I had my glasses off, the state in which I’d originally registered my face.

Apple’s face recognition system generates its own illumination — throwing out 30,000 pinpoint beams of infrared light to measure the contours of your face. The light then bounces back and is captured by a special infrared-light-measuring camera on the phone, processed in milliseconds by an on-board high-powered chip.

Apple says the system is so smart it can identify you not only if your glasses are on or off, but also if you’ve changed your hair color or style, are wearing a hat or have been sobbing all night and developed bags under those eyes! And it won’t be spoofed by a one-dimensional photo or even a three-dimensional mask.

Still, suspicious minds like Franken’s are pressing Apple to explain to the American public how the FaceID tech will affect consumer privacy and security.

In a letter sent Wednesday night to CEO Tim Cook, which you can read here on Franken’s website, the senator said he was “encouraged by the steps that Apple states it has taken to implement the system responsibly,” but cautioned that “substantial questions remain.”

While Apple has stated that all faceprint data will be “stored on the individual’s device as opposed to being sent to the cloud,” Franken is wondering if it’s possible “either remotely or through physical access to the device, for Apple or a third party to extract and obtain usable faceprint data from the iPhone X.”

And “is there any foreseeable reason why Apple would decide to begin storing such data remotely?”

He also ponders if Apple might share faceprint data with a “commercial third party.” Could happen. Apple has said that the system will be used to unlock third-party apps such as 1Password, E*Trade, and Mint.

The senator asked if the recognition system is sufficiently trained to avoid “racial, gender or age bias.” And “what safeguards has Apple implemented to prevent the unlocking of the iPhone X when an individual other than the owner of the device holds it up to the owner’s face?”

And finally, challenging Apple to the core of its personal privacy values, he ponders “how will Apple respond to law enforcement requests to access Apple’s faceprint data or the FaceID system itself?”

As the most outspoken figure on the Senate Privacy Subcommittee, Franken has pushed several companies on the value and threats of new technology. He questioned phone companies over fingerprint ID, a useful feature now built into lots of devices. And he fought off a proposed Google Glass app called Name Tag, which would have let strangers get people’s very personal information by looking at them through the special eyewear.

In his pre-Senate days as a Saturday Night Live comic regular, Franken famously suggested a future where one guy in a war zone could broadcast to the world with a bulky satellite TV transmitter on his back and a doofy dish antenna plopped on his head. Now all you need to pull that off is a smartphone and a streaming video app like Periscope or Facebook Live.