So far, 2017 has been an eventful year for increasing access to password-alternative smartphone and laptop unlocking techniques. Notably, Samsung added Face unlocking to the Galaxy S8 line and Apple introduced Face ID on the iPhone X. Of particular note, facial recognition is a convenient alternative to the traditional password-entry methods because all a device owner needs to do is look at the screen to unlock the device.
Security or Convenience?
However, these password alternatives still require a master password, so they’re really less about increasing security and more about making it more convenient to sign into a device. Alternative unlocking methods greatly range in security potential, so it’s prudent for businesses to determine whether each meets reliability standards.
Face Scanning: The New Front-Runner
Face scanning, as its name implies, uses one or more cameras on the screen-side of the device to “scan” the user’s face to determine if the person is allowed to access the device. Unfortunately, face scanning isn’t off to a great start as users have found easy ways to trick the Samsung Galaxy Note 8’s facial recognition with a photograph of the owner. This is a pretty common problem with two-dimensional facial recognition technology.
However, three-dimensional scanning has a much better track record. The iPhone X uses depth scanning on its various tracking points so a photo won’t fool it. According to Apple, the chance two people will have matching Face IDs is one in a million. Depth-based scanning is also available on Windows 10 PCs equipped with an Intel RealSense 3D camera.
Iris scanning is a lot like facial recognition scanning except it uses just the eyes instead of the entire face. Found on phones going as far back as the Galaxy S6, Iris scanning has similar security strengths and weaknesses to facial recognition scanning.
However, Iris scanning isn’t as convenient because it requires a closer view, may not work as well in high-light conditions and can have issues with glasses.
Fingerprint scanning has been available on smartphones since 2011 and much longer on laptop computers: it’s the established common alternative to a typed password. It’s reasonably convenient and offers satisfactory security: Apple argues their system has a 1 in 50,000 chance of two people have a matching print. These scanners are commonly used on phones via the “home” or “center” button, while newer phones like the Galaxy S8 sport a scanner on the back of the device.
However, fingerprint scanners have a reputation for being easily fooled. For example, someone could make a “key copy” of the owner’s fingerprint using a dental mold and Play-Doh. While it’s unlikely someone who steals a device through a crime-of-opportunity will be able to unlock the fingerprint, it is an issue for specifically targeted high-value employee devices.