Simply looking at an iPhone display can use up one of the five Face ID unlock attempts a user has before a passcode is required instead. To maximize the chances of gaining access to an iPhone, the police should therefore avoid looking directly at the screen.
There’s an ongoing tug of war between an individual’s data security and the desire for authorities to access it. This is highlighted by the security used on smartphones. It used to be just a passcode or swipe pattern protecting access, but a desire for convenience led us to fingerprint scanning and facial recognition. That convenience actually makes it easier to force someone to unlock a device, but when it comes to the iPhone, don’t look directly at it.
As Motherboard reports, that’s the advice being given to US law enforcement by forensics company Elcomsoft. Slides obtained and since verified as real by Elcomsoft explain how looking at the screen of an iPhone X, for example, is ill-advised when the phone is handled.
If law enforcement wants to gain access to an iPhone which uses Face ID, only five attempts are given to present a face the iPhone recognizes. Simply looking at the screen uses up one of those attempts, and every subsequent look uses up another. Do that five times and the iPhone will revert to requiring a passcode, and that’s much harder to extract from a suspect than simply getting them to look at their device.
Motherboard also points out that a passcode can be considered as “testimonial evidence” and therefore is protected, but the same is not true of fingerprints or faces. At least, it isn’t yet. The law will eventually catch up with the technology and better protect the individual. However, a warrant can still compel a suspect to unlock a device.