Pixel 4 has a privacy problem: facial unlocking

The BBC has reportedly discovered that facial recognition unlocks the Pixel 4 even if the user has their eyes closed. Here's what's going on

Facial unlocking is one of the newest features in the smartphone world. After debuting on the iPhone X, 3D face recognition has also arrived on Google's new Pixel 4, which will be sold starting October 24 but is already available for pre-order. This feature, however, has a huge privacy issue.

The Pixel 4, in fact, unlocks even if we have our eyes closed. Which means that if someone manages to pick up our smartphone they can unlock it by bringing it close to our face even if we're asleep. And even if we're dead. The BBC discovered it, but Google neither confirms nor denies the scoop. This problem brings back the controversy about privacy risks already started two years ago, when Apple introduced Face ID, which, however, specifically requires the user to open their eyes and pay attention to the device to unlock the iPhone.

Google is working on a solution

Interrupted about this problem and a possible solution by The Verge, Google stated via email: "We have nothing to declare about future functionality but, like many of our products, this feature is designed to improve over time with future software updates." However, it seems fairly certain that an option to prevent facial unlocking with eyes closed will be coming soon to the Pixels. That option, in fact, is clearly visible in one of the endless "leaked" photos of the Pixel 4 shot in recent weeks. According to Fox News reports, such an option is not yet there in the devices that will arrive to the first buyers starting in late October, but it would seem only a matter of time.

Facial recognition, the problems for security

It must be said, however, that facial unlocking is not the best for privacy, even if it works only with eyes open. Back in 2017, when Face ID had just been announced by Apple, the American Civil Liberties Union (an American association that fights for the respect of civil rights) had pointed out that facial unlocking could create privacy issues. For example in the case in which we are stopped by the police and our cell phone is seized: in this case it takes only a moment to unlock it, if a policeman brings it close to our face without us realizing it in time. In such cases, the iPhone option that prevents unlocking if the user doesn't look at the device may not be enough.

Disabling biometric unlocking

At this point, a sensible choice could be to disable biometric unlocking altogether, going back to the old, uncomfortable but more secure four to six digit PIN. You can do this on both Android and iOS devices, and it prevents anyone holding our phone from unlocking it by bringing it close to our face. Sometimes, in order to protect our privacy, we have to take a technological step backwards.