subway rider wearing mask (DimaBerlin/

NYC transit agency wants iPhone Face ID to handle masks

New York City’s transit agency is asking Apple to improve its facial recognition algorithm so that bus and subway passengers don’t have to remove their masks to unlock their phones and potentially spread COVID-19.

In a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook obtained by the Associated Press, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Patrick Foye urged the company to “accelerate the deployment of new technologies and solutions that further protect customers in the era of COVID-19,” adding that MTA could work with Apple on messaging to make sure users know that the most recent iPhone upgrade allows users to easily bypass the facial recognition-based unlocking system. 

In iOS 13.5, released in May, riders on some bus and subway lines that use Apple Pay Express Transit can pay with their iPhone or Apple Watch without having to wake the device. The upgrade also automatically presents the passcode field after a user swipes up from the bottom of the lock screen. 

MTA, which requires all riders to socially distance and wear masks, said in recent weeks that more than 90% are wearing some form of face covering, AP reported.

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is laying the groundwork for more sophisticated facial recognition systems by building a dataset of images of digitally masked people vendors can use to improve their technology.

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