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Facemasks Impede Smartphone Biometrics

by User Not Found | May 14, 2020

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has seen many places mandate the wearing of face masks in an attempt to help prevent spreading disease.

One way this can have an impact on consumers is their ability to use biometrics, and in particular facial recognition technology, such as Face ID, to unlock their smartphone.  On both Apple and Samsung devices tested by Strategy Analytics, a user is unable to unlock their device using facial recognition while wearing a mask, while facial recognition cannot be setup to recognize a user wearing a mask.

Trying to set up facial recognition while wearing a mask


As well as offering a level of security, biometrics brings a fast and convenient way for consumers to unlock their phone.  It is important that when facial recognition does not work the user 1) is clearly told it has not worked and 2) are quickly and easily presented with an alternative way to unlock their phone – something that both Apple and Samsung can improve on.

On Apple devices, users are given a prompt to ‘Swipe up to unlock’, and then have to swipe up from the bottom of the display to reveal the screen to enter a passcode.  After successfully entering a passcode, the user is taken to the homescreen of the device, and they can continue to use it as normal.

Steps to Unlock Device after Face ID Fails


Many Samsung devices (including the Note 10, S10 and S20 series) include two options for biometrics – both face recognition and fingerprint recognition.  So if face recognition isn’t possible, users can still use biometrics to unlock their device if fingerprint recognition is set up.  If fingerprint recognition is not set up, or if the user prefers, they can also enter a PIN by swiping up on the screen.  Additionally, Samsung will explicitly tell the user if their face has not been recognized, something the iPhone doesn’t do.

Options for Unlocking Samsung Galaxy S10+

However, use cases for facial recognition are not limited to just unlocking a device (see report Advancements in Facial Recognition).  For example, Apple’s Face ID can also be used for making payments using Apple Pay.  People may want a more touchless experience when out and about, and contactless payments, already popular in many countries, may increase even further.  Having a convenient way to authenticate this payment, while wearing a face mask, will be important.

It is unknown how long people will be required to wear masks for, and if wearing a mask is something that they will choose to do out of caution, even after mandates disappear.  However, providing users with multiple options for biometrics, and also looking to include advanced biometrics such as iris/retina scanner, or voice authentication may help.

For ways in which Strategy Analytics believes the COVID-19 pandemic will impact consumer purchasing preferences, their usage of applications and services, and HMI preferences, check out the following report: COVID-19: Long-Term Impacts of the Pandemic on UX

- Paul Brown

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