face masks

Face ID With a Mask? Here's How to Unlock Your iPhone in the Age of COVID-19

We tested out the most popular internet theory on how to get your iPhone to recognize your face with a mask on, and figured out how to (sort of) make it work

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What to Know

  • Apple has included facial recognition on its flagship iPhones and iPads since the feature debuted with the iPhone X in late 2017
  • Face ID on Apple devices will work with hats, sunglasses and beards, but officially, it requires a user's eyes, nose and mouth to be visible
  • Some users have had success at unlocking their iPhones with masks on by using a folded or half-worn mask during Face ID setup

When Apple introduced Face ID with the launch of its hotly-anticipated iPhone X, fans and critics heralded the feature as a huge leap forward in smartphone security: It was easy to use, nearly impossible to trick, and freed up oodles of room for a bigger screen by getting rid of the fingerprint sensor.

That was in 2017. Now, almost three years later, iPhone users might find themselves longing for a simpler time: one when a fingerprint was all it took to unlock a phone. No one predicted that the microscopic virus turning the world on its head would also turn the iPhone's slickest security feature into its most frustrating shortcoming.

"Face ID is designed to work with your eyes, nose and mouth visible," Apple told us in a statement.

a man uses an iPhone to pay a clerk at a coffee shop. Both are wearing masks over their lower faces.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
As the economy opens back up, people are interacting with each other — and with their smartphones — while their lower faces are covered by masks, scarves or bandanas.

Eyes? No problem. But as the economy opens up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nose and mouth are becoming a bit of an issue. In many jurisdictions across the Bay Area, masks or other material covering the nose and mouth are mandatory accessories for customers entering businesses or even waiting in line outside.

Apple's official solution?

"Users can still unlock their devices while wearing a mask by entering their passcode," the company said.

But a quick Google search reveals that a lot of users aren't happy with that answer. Theories abound across page after page of search results, offering workarounds to "trick" an iPhone into unlocking upon seeing a user's masked face. The most popular method appears to originate from research conducted at Chinese conglomerate Tencent's Xuanwu security lab.

How-To: Setting up Face ID With a Mask

The Tencent solution relies on Face ID's "Alternate Appearance" feature, which Lookout Mobile Security's Chris Hazelton says is also a great way to give a partner or family member access to your phone. Alternate Appearance allows your iPhone to recognize both your face and somebody else's.

"Set up an alternate appearance" menu option on iPhone
Apple's Face ID allows users to "Set Up an Alternate Appearance," a feature that allows a second user's face to unlock the iPhone — or, with some improvising, could allow the iPhone to unlock when the primary user is wearing a mask.

For the purposes of this solution, the "somebody else" is you, wearing a mask. Just think of yourself as a comic book superhero with a secret identity. If Bruce Wayne had an iPhone (and you know he would have), Batman would've been enrolled as his Alternate Appearance. (Sorry, was that a spoiler?)

But there's one problem: Face ID measures the physical contours of your face. That means when it doesn't see the shape of a nose and mouth during its setup scan, it gets confused and gives up. This is where you might want to reach to your utility belt (you have one, right Batman?) and grab yourself a roll of tape.

Tencent's researchers — and the countless YouTubers, bloggers and reporters who've followed their instructions — found that Face ID setup will work properly if your mask is covering only half of your face. You may be able to do this with carefully placed fingers, or even by holding part of the mask in your mouth, but we found it was most easily done with a small piece of tape to secure the mask under the chin, and another to attach it to the tip of the nose. For this experiment, we used gaffer's tape, which is safe on skin and easy to remove.

a man wearing a mask looks at an iphone and touches it with his index finger
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Tencent's security researchers found it's possible to set up Face ID on an iPhone while wearing a mask over half of your face — a feat we accomplished by folding the mask over and attaching it with tape.

We also found that it matters which side you register the mask on: if you tend to hold your phone in your right hand, you'll probably want to enroll your Alternate Appearance with the mask stuck to the right side of your face.

Once you've successfully set up Face ID for your masked alter-ego, here are a few things to keep in mind: Faced with a lack of detail in the lower part of your face, your iPhone will likely be much pickier about your eyes when you go to unlock it. Even smiling with your eyes could be enough to make your phone say "no way." If you wear glasses, and wearing a mask tends to fog them up, that could also interfere. And, as we just mentioned, your phone is much more likely to unlock on the first try if you hold it on the same side as the mask you stuck to your face during setup.

In all, using this method got us about a 50% success rate at unlocking the phone with a mask on, over a period of several weeks. It's not ideal — but Hazelton says it's also probably not hurting your phone's security: A phone thief wearing a mask still doesn't have the top half of your face.

"It still is unique enough that it would be almost impossible to mimic," Hazelton said.

The Future: Other Solutions

Just like touch screen ski gloves, there are already efforts afoot to make face coverings that are compatible with smartphone security features — though at least one of them is a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Danielle Baskin — the artist we featured for her Distance Tarot pop-up — used a clay mold to create a contoured mask with an exaggerated nose and mouth. She was able to enroll the mask in Face ID and unlock her phone with it again and again. She showed us the proof in a video she recorded, unlocking her phone with the mask on while sitting in front of a mirror.

A woman wearing a white plastic mask with a contoured nose and mouth on it sits in front of a mirror holding an iPhone displaying the home screen
Courtesy: Danielle Baskin
Danielle Baskin created a mask that unlocks her iPhone by making it from a clay mold of a nose and mouth.

Baskin's first try at this didn't work — but it did go viral.

"My friend made a comment like, 'If you're wearing a mask, you won't be able to unlock your phone,' and I thought, oh, well what if your face was on it?" she said.

Baskin came up with a way to warp a photograph so that it looks realistic when printed onto a fabric mask, and tweeted a photograph of herself wearing the bearded lower face of the "Hide the Pain Harold" meme. The photograph was retweeted more than 32,000 times and earned her requests from celebrities to make custom-printed masks — even though those 2D masks won't unlock an iPhone.

As for an official solution, Apple is characteristically quiet, but Hazelton says if he were a betting man, he'd have his money on the iPhone maker to figure something out soon.

Device manufacturers are already feeling pressure from their customers, he said, "to take into account the new normal, which is people wearing masks. So we could see this rather quickly."

The Stopgap: iOS 13.5

Just like Harold, Apple is doing a little something to hide the pain. Its forthcoming iPhone software update, iOS 13.5, incorporates a host of COVID-19-related tweaks, including new capabilities for contact tracing apps, and a small change to Face ID. To be clear, the new software won't magically recognize your face with a mask on. But now, if you're wearing a mask, you'll be able to enter your PIN or passcode on an on-screen keypad immediately upon picking up the phone — instead of having to stare at a blank screen for 1-2 seconds while Face ID tries and fails.

Hazelton speculates the COVID-19 pandemic could have a major impact on product design — giving Apple a reason to revisit including fingerprint sensors in its high-end devices, perhaps hidden under the screen the way they are on some Samsung phones. Until then, he joked, we could see spike in demand for older iPhones.

"I'm sure that people are re-evaluating the value of an iPhone 8 on eBay, as they realize, 'Oh, that phone had Touch ID!'" he said.

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