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3D printed head experiment highlights flaws in facial recognition tech

An experiment conducted by Forbes broke into four Android devices using a life-size 3D printed head

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The increasing presence of facial recognition technology in our society has created some cause for alarm—and not without reason. Questions of surveillance and privacy violations are at the forefront of the technology’s criticisms, though there is also concern over the accuracy and effectiveness of facial recognition.

One of the more mainstream uses for facial recognition systems is in smartphone technology—where new smartphone models come equipped with facial recognition unlocking capabilities. Some are excited about the new development—and presumably eager to do away with pesky passcodes—while others have their reservations.

At Forbes, journalist Thomas Brewster put his own skepticism into action by testing smartphone facial recognition technology with a 3D printed replica of his own head. The experiment, which tested four Android smartphones and an iPhone, resulted in some interesting findings that might lead some to forego the latest security feature.

To get the experiment going, Brewster reached out to Birmingham-based 3D scanning and printing company Backface, which used its 50-camera scanning booth to capture an uncanny 3D model of his face. The 3D scan of Brewster’s face was tweaked and edited using a 3D modeling software before being 3D printed in full scale and in full colour.

The realistic head model, printed from layers of a British gypsum powder, was reportedly ready within just a few days and cost just over £300 to produce.

3D printed head facial recognition

Next, the Forbes reporter used his own real head to register for facial recognition across five devices: Apple’s iPhone X, and four Android smartphones: the LG G7 ThinQ, the Samsung S9, the Samsung Note 8 and the OnePlus 6. I’m sure you can guess what came next: Brewster attempted to open each of the smartphones by holding up his 3D printed head twin.

In the end, all four Android devices were unlocked with the 3D printed head. Only the iPhone X was impervious. Brewster does specify that between the Android devices, some were easier to hack than others. The LG G7, for instance, opened almost immediately. (He does also note that the LG G7 actually warns users about turning facial recognition on at all and many of the other models that were tested issued some sort of disclaimer.) In the end, only Apple’s facial recognition technology was not fooled by the 3D printed head.

Still, it should be emphasized that many security experts do not recommend using facial recognition unlocking technology if security is the primary concern, as biometrics can be replicated and there are still flaws in the consumer-grade technology. Of course, this level of hacking won’t affect the average person in their daily life, but it is worth keeping in mind that new facial recognition features are not necessarily the most effective security means for your smartphone.

On the brighter side, perhaps the experiment was an inadvertent testimony to the accuracy of current 3D printing technologies!

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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