Face ID With a Mask Is Less Secure, but Worth It

You'll need to make eye contact with your phone

Key Takeaways

  • iOS 15.4 beta lets you use Face ID while wearing a mask.
  • The security level is lower, but so is a 4-digit PIN.
  • Masked Face ID also works for Apple Pay.
Person on a park bench holding a phone and wearing a mask

F.J. Jimenez / Getty Images

In a few weeks, you’ll be able to use Face ID to unlock your iPhone while wearing a mask. 

The newest beta version of iOS 15 lets you train your phone to recognize you while half your face is covered with a mask. You’ll no longer have to pull your mask down and risk spreading your germs to unlock your phone in public, and you’ll be able to authenticate Apple Pay, so you can go back to secure payments in the supermarket. It’s taken a while, but Apple seems to have made FaceID viable again. 

“This makes our life much easier; forget the hassle of taking the mask off or putting in a 6-digit password for using our phone in public. It will speed up our phone usage in public, and most importantly, it will limit our need to expose ourselves to the virus,” Aseem Kishore, founder of Help Desk Geek, told Lifewire via email. 

Touch or Face

Person looking into a phone that is scanning their face

filadendron / Getty Images

We're a few years into the pandemic, yet Apple has only just managed to update Face ID to work with masks. The most likely explanation for this is that keeping face recognition secure enough with only the top part of the face to work on is hard. Apple is dead serious about security, and both Face ID and Touch ID are fantastic.

We hear stories of Android phones being unlocked by photographs of the owner's face, but spoofing Apple's biometrics seems virtually impossible. You need a pair of identical twins (or not), and you need to actively train your phone to recognize your twin. In short, there was no way that Apple would weaken Face ID significantly in the pursuit of convenience. 

However, if you only have the eyes to go on, you have fewer data points from Face ID's grid of projected dots and infrared camera, which it uses to capture a 3D model of your face. The on-screen info in the new Face ID setup screen confirms this.

“It is less secure, but for many people, the convenience of it makes the lowered security levels worth it. "

Face ID is most accurate when set up for full-face recognition only. To use Face ID while wearing a mask, iPhone can recognize the unique features around the eye area to authenticate.

Usually, Face ID works just fine for people wearing glasses. But the new mask-unlock version requires that you enroll all the glasses you wear. You must also look directly at the phone to unlock it. 

But despite this, it might just be worth it for many people. 

“It is less secure, but for many people, the convenience of it makes the lowered security levels worth it. What they’ve done to make it as secure as possible is design it so that the person has to look directly into the camera. It has to be a straight-on shot of the person’s face, with eye contact, which isn’t required for standard face ID without a mask. This does help some with making sure that only the actual owner of the phone can unlock it,” Kristen Bolig, CEO of SecurityNerd, told Lifewire via email. 

Touch and Watch

Person checking their Apple Watch

yourstockbank / Getty Images

Despite the drop in security level, this is probably still a lot better than the alternative. I know people who have ditched a long, secure, hard-to-type passcode for a simple four- or six-digit PIN to make things like Apple Pay easier, which is a serious security risk. We can probably assume that this new eyes-only Face ID is better than that, especially as that simple passcode is the only thing between a thief and all your Apple Pay cards. 

Apple Watch users have been able to use their watches to unlock their phones for a while now, and while it is convenient and is surprisingly reliable, it never felt particularly secure. The unlock can happen even when the iPhone's camera isn't pointed at a face, and it's easy to miss the unlock alert that appears on the Watch when you're in a busy place. 

It's a difficult problem to solve, the ultimate trade-off between security and convenience. But the very fact that Apple has released this as a beta means that it's happy with the balance it's achieved. It might not be as good as bringing back Touch ID for iPhones, but it's a lot better than nothing.

Was this page helpful?