Face ID on the Mac

Chance Miller, in this 9to5Mac op-ed piece:

What I love most about Face ID is that it’s passive. It works without me needing to do anything, such as place my finger on a fingerprint reader. Need to view my Safari Keychain? Face ID authenticates me. Opening a secure app such as a banking app? Face ID to the rescue. On the Mac, Face ID would be able to do all of this in an even more seamless fashion.

For instance, unlocking your Mac would become an automatic process. By the time you sat down and opened your MacBook, Face ID could recognize and authenticate you – there’d be no waiting involved. Similar to how Auto Unlock works when your Mac is paired to your Apple Watch, logging in would be a completely passive and secure process.

I have mixed feelings about this. I use my Apple Watch to unlock my Mac and, once it’s unlocked, it tends to stay unlocked for long stretches. I unlock my Mac from 2-10 times a day, at most. My phone on the other hand, can require an unlock as many as 100 times a day.

My point is that I don’t think the cost of adding Face ID to a Mac, purely for unlock, would be worth the expense to me, given that I have an Apple Watch.


In terms of broader security, Face ID would bring major improvements to the Mac. Currently, if you have passwords and log-in information stored in Safari, macOS doesn’t prompt you for any authentication when you go to sign-in to a website. Apple assumes that the initial log-in to macOS was enough authentication, and while this is true in most cases, it still represents a potential security hole if someone were to get ahold of your Mac after you’d already logged in.

The key would be if Apple tightly integrated Face ID throughout the operating system, as they did with Touch ID and Face ID throughout iOS. And, of course, I would expect Apple to do that.

But I think Face ID on the Mac would go way beyond security. For starters, the facial mapping would allow you to use Animoji throughout macOS. More importantly, whatever technology follows Animoji in taking advantage of facial mapping will also be possible on your Mac.

As augmented reality evolves, facial mapping and machine learning will evolve as well and it will be nice having the additional hardware that makes that facial mapping possible on both platforms.

As an example, take a look at this video, which shows off a deep neural network that allows you to change your hair color in real time. Imagine an app that does that for everything about you, swapping out glasses, facial hair, masks, colors, earrings, tattoos, what have you, all tightly tracked to your face.

Face ID on the Mac would allow macOS to keep up with iOS in this space. The question is, would Apple prefer this sort of technology to be available throughout the ecosystem, or would they prefer face tracking to be something that distinguishes iOS, a gentle nudge to move all users to iOS devices.

  • I suspect Face ID may have been originally conceived as being for Macs, as fingerprint technology is awkward to implement on Macs (see the touch bar, and even there only workable in laptops), as you can’t make the secure enclave an external device.

    But the R&D expense was easier to justify economically, by developing it for the iPhone first.

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  • Alex Hon

    FaceID on a Mac might work better if it can recognize multiple faces simultaneously, and if Siri can differentiate between one user’s voice vs. another, for anything that requires authentication (e.g. parent allowing kid to watch YouTube after designated hours).

  • The cost is not an issue. By the time it gets to the mac the scale of manufacturing the face id components will be cheaper and more in line with other components. It will happen.

    • Alex Hon

      If they need to bring costs down over time, they can first launch the feature with the Pro products like they did with Touch ID.

  • Janak Parekh

    Dave—why do you think Apple is nudging everyone to move to iOS? I don’t see that.

    While I have an Apple Watch set up for auto-unlock, Apple Watch doesn’t cover many password situations where Touch ID and Face ID can. Plus, it’s comparatively slow.

    You suggest unlocking a few times a day, but reducing friction there for all users can make a substantial difference. One could (eventually) do even more clever security things, like auto-lock when you look away. In corporate/secure environments that could be incredibly useful.

    • rick gregory

      The other issue is that Watch unlock only works for people with a Watch and, while I’m sure Apple would love it if everyone with a Mac bought a Watch, that’s not the case and never will be.

      The advantage of FaceID on every Mac would be that universality, though of course there’s the issue of replacement time for those who already have Macs.

      • Alex Hon

        How about Mac Pro’s and Mac mini’s that don’t come with any cameras? They would never be able to support Face ID, at least not the “attention-aware” portion!

        • rick gregory

          Look, Alex, if you’re going to use LOGIC…

          Yeah, that’s a good point. If Apple were still in the monitor business I’d say ‘well those people can buy an Apple screen… ” I can think of 3 ways to go in those cases:

          1) License FaceID modules to screen vendors. 2) make modules available to clip on screens (very unApple, though) 3) Let them eat cake, i.e. they just dont get the feature. For Mac Pros, that’s likely OK in the sense that there are few of those people. For Minis… presuming they keep and update the Mini, this is not a good solution.

          • john doofus

            2) Return of the iSight!

          • Alex Hon

            Now that I think about it a little more, I don’t think Mac’s Auto Unlock actually has the means to check whether the person wearing the watch is the actual owner, does it?

          • rick gregory

            No. It checks to see if the watch is unlocked and assumes that if it is, the wearer is authorized to use the Watch. IIRC, you have to pair the Watch and Mac (or auth it somehow) so the logic is “This person has authorized access to this Watch and they can login and pair the Watch and Mac so they’re OK”

          • Alex Hon

            In that case it seems like Apple is toying with the idea of an unlocking accessory. Perhaps if they see enough people doing it this way (by % of watch owners or % of unlocks vs. logins)

          • rick gregory
          • Alex Hon

            Bookmarked for my train commute reading. Thanks!

        • Janak Parekh

          Apple is rumored to be launching a new “pro” monitor with the Mac Pro. That could enable this kind of camera to be integrated.

          Mac mini would likely never support this, and that’s OK. Not every product has to have Face ID.

          In practice, iMacs and MacBooks dominate macOS sales, and if those two were covered, that’d be a solid step.

          • There is a difficulty in using an external monitor for Face ID (as opposed to the all-in-one iMac or laptops):

            To be secure, the secure enclave (and the sensors that feed to it) ought to be in the same unit. Maybe the enclave can still be in the computer, but with the sensors connected via a cable, provides a vector for identifying information to be intercepted.

            Maybe Apple can find a way to make this work well, but it is an added hurdle to do this.

          • Janak Parekh

            A monitor with a data (Thunderbolt) interface could come up with some kind of key-based encryption where the two “pair” for the purposes of authentication.

            I agree that this added work may not happen; just pointing out there is a path. That said, this is a complete non-issue for iMacs and MacBooks, and this also nicely sidesteps the keyboard/touch ID issue for iMacs.

    • Alex Hon

      On corporate/secure environments, an immediately applicable scenario that I can think of would be in the Apple HQ. Can you imagine FaceID locking down the Macs as it detects presence of unauthorized personnel within a certain distance?

      • Janak Parekh

        I don’t think the tech is ready for it, but the potential applications are incredibly tantalizing, and not just for Apple.

    • Dave Mark

      Janak, I wasn’t suggesting that Apple had a particular motivation, was more posing the possibility. I do agree with your follow-up points and do hope Face ID does make it to the Mac. Appreciate the comments! — Dave

      • Janak Parekh

        Thanks for the context!

        (Note, I increasingly use an iPad Pro for all my personal stuff, so I’m not against it at some level, but as long as I can’t code on an iPad… :-))

  • Stacy