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. 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 Face ID cheat sheet is an introduction to Apple’s new form of biometric security. This Face ID guide will be updated periodically. This article is also available as a download, Apple’s Face ID: Cheat sheet (free PDF) .

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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 (chief information officers) may have about Face ID.
  • When was Face ID released? Face ID launched with the iPhone X on November 3, 2017, and is now available on most Apple mobile devices created after that date.
  • 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 the phone can recognize.

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

Image: Apple/Screenshot by CNET

What is Face ID?

Unlocking your phone with a fingerprint is nearly a thing of the past. The modern smartphone user, provided they have the latest Apple products, is unlocking their device with a glance.

Available on most iPhones and iPads designed on or after the 2017 iPhone X, 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 one in a million. Touch ID’s odds are one in 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 (TechRepublic Premium)

Those concerned about law enforcement using Face ID to gain access to a secured device don’t need to worry either: A U.S. 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 U.S. 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 its 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 device’s chip, where it is checked against existing records, just like a fingerprint.

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 Apple has to offer you had better be comfortable with Face ID.

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Why does Face ID matter?

Face ID is 20 times 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 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.

But face scanning technology is by no means new. Android has had Trusted Face unlocking since Lollipop in 2014. 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.

Google’s Pixel 4, released in October 2019, comes with face unlocking technology similar to Face ID, at least in that Google trusts it to not only unlock the device, but also sign into apps and process payments using Google Pay. Both the Pixel 4 and Apple’s face scanning technology rely on infrared dot maps . With both Apple and Google ditching fingerprint scanning for similar technology wider adoption may be closer than it seems.

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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 current generation mobile Apple products to retain a Touch ID fingerprint sensor are the iPad, the iPad Air, the iPad Mini, and the second-generation iPhone SE , so unless there are some of those devices in your organization, you’ll have to get used to supporting Face ID.

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Which devices support Face ID?

Face ID is currently available on the following devices:

  • iPhone 13 Pro Max
  • iPhone 13 Pro
  • iPhone 13 mini
  • iPhone 13
  • iPhone 12 Pro Max
  • iPhone 12 Pro
  • iPhone 12 mini
  • iPhone 12
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone X
  • iPad Pro 12.9-inch (4th generation)
  • iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd generation)
  • iPad Pro 11-inch (2nd generation)
  • iPad Pro 11-inch

SEE: Apple iPhone 13 cheat sheet: Everything you need to know about Apple’s flagship phones (TechRepublic)

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.

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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.

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How can you set up Face ID to work with a mask?

Yes, you can configure compatible Apple Face ID devices to work when you are wearing a facemask of the type commonly used to minimize COVID-19 transmission risks. There are two methods of unlocking a mobile Face ID-equipped device when wearing a mask.

The first method involves using an Apple Watch. Beginning with iOS update 14.5, you can unlock an iPhone using an Apple Watch. First you must install the iPhone update, and then you must update your Apple Watch using watchOS update 7.4 or later. Next, you must enable Apple Watch to unlock your iPhone by following these steps:

  1. Open Settings on the iPhone.
  2. Select Face ID & Passcode.
  3. Enter your passcode.
  4. Enable the iPhone unlock radio button.
  5. Confirm by pressing Turn On.

Once those steps are complete, while wearing your Apple Watch, swipe up on the iPhone’s screen as normal. As long as a portion of your face is visible, as Cory Bohon notes in this TechRepublic article , the iPhone should unlock.

The Apple Watch method can sometimes prove a little wonky, though. In March 2022, Apple released iOS 15.4, which enables Face ID to work on iPhone 12 and later models when you’re wearing a mask. Lance Whitney recounts the specific steps in this TechRepublic article, but the process essentially consists of installing the update, then going to Settings, selecting Face ID & Passcode, enabling the Face ID With A Mask option and following the configuration steps.

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Does Face ID work with eyes closed?

Although there are reports users have unlocked their iPhone using Face ID with their eyes closed, including when an iPhone’s Face ID and Passcode menu option Require Attention for Face ID option is disabled, Apple states “Face ID requires that the TrueDepth camera sees your face or your eyes,” and ScaleFT CSO Marc Rogers told Slate that “Face ID needs open eyes to work.”

Apple purposefully took steps designing Face ID to ensure an iPhone or iPad cannot be unlocked using your face unless your intention is specifically to unlock the device. This is why the Face ID recognizes whether your eyes are open, and you are directing your attention to the iPhone or iPad. Those requirements help prevent someone from unlocking your Face ID-equipped mobile device by holding the device in front of your face while you sleep.

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Can you use a picture for Face ID?

The general consensus is Apple’s Face ID cannot be unlocked using a photo or printed picture. According to Apple , “Face ID matches against depth information, which isn’t found in print or 2D digital photographs. It’s designed to protect against spoofing by masks or other techniques through the use of sophisticated anti-spoofing neural networks.”

Because Face ID uses sophisticated security technology, the feature appears sound. Further, many informal tests reported online confirm efforts to trick Face ID using a photo fail to work.

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Can Face ID be tricked?

Yes, as with any technology, it’s always best to never say never. Some anomalies have been reported, as mentioned earlier. While some reports are met with informed skepticism, at least one case is confirmed . That said, the likelihood of finding a workaround is unlikely, though possible.

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The original reporting for this article was by Brandon Vigliarolo and updated by Erik Eckel.