Which phones can be fooled and unlocked with low-res photos of you?

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2 facial recognition.jpg

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since facial recognition technology became available on smartphones. No typing a code. All you have to do is simply look at the camera, and presto, your phone is unlocked.  The ultimate convenience and ease of use, right?

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However, while facial recognition technology can provide security, not all phone models are as secure as you may have been led to believe. In fact, recent tests by the not-for-profit consumer organization Which? found a number of smartphones from major brands, including Samsung, Nokia, and Motorola, have a flaw that could be exploited by criminals to unlock the screen and steal your personal information. Here’s what we know and what you can do if you own one of these models.

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Which phones are the most at risk of being unlocked with low-res photos?

The U.K. group called Which says it tested the facial recognition quality of 48 different phones and found that 19 of those devices could not pass.  Some of the brands included in those tests were Samsung, Motorola, Oppo, Nokia, Xiaomi, and Vivo phones.

Here is a list of the 19 models that failed the phone security test:

  • Honor 70
  • Motorola Razr 2022
  • Motorola Moto E13
  • Motorola Moto G13
  • Motorola Moto G23
  • Nokia G60 5G
  • Nokia X30 5G
  • Oppo A57
  • Oppo A57s
  • Samsung Galaxy A23 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy M53 5G
  • Vivo Y76 5G
  • Xiaomi POCO M5
  • Xiaomi POCO M5s
  • Xiaomi X5 Pro
  • Xiaomi 12T
  • Xiaomi 12T Pro
  • Xiaomi 12 Lite
  • Xiaomi 13

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Photo of the Samsung Galaxy A23.

The Samsung Galaxy A23 is one of the many phones that did not pass the photo test by a U.K. group called Which. (CyberGuy.com)

 Credit: Samsung

In the test, the team at Which used photos of the phone owners to see if they could unlock the phone without using the owner’s actual face. Shockingly, some of the photos were even low-res 2D photos, yet they still could unlock the models listed above. This is very unlike Apple phones, which passed every test performed by Which? because Apple’s Face ID uses a combination of infrared sensors and machine learning algorithms to create a depth map of the user’s face.

MORE: HOW TO UNLOCK YOUR PHONE WITH FACIAL RECOGNITION EVEN WHEN YOU HAVE YOUR GLASSES ON

What does this mean for these phone models?

Unfortunately, there are no meaningful laws currently requiring phone manufacturers to implement stricter biometric security for their devices. However, certain apps, such as banking apps, can impose their own additional requirements for verifying a person’s identity so that it won’t solely depend on using facial recognition.

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Photo of a woman holding up her phone.

Low-res photos can be used to open smartphone lock screen. (CyberGuy.com)

Also, Which stated that these phones would fall into the Class 1 biometric group. This means that certain manufacturers, like Android, for example, will not allow phones within this category to be used by third-party apps to sign in or to confirm important actions. Although their lack of significant facial recognition technology is a bit concerning, there are still certain protections in place.

MORE: HOW TO STOP GOOGLE FROM ITS CREEPY WAY OF USING YOU FOR FACIAL RECOGNITION 

Is there anything else I can do if I use one of these phone models?

Opt for a secure alternative

If you own any of the phone models listed above, it would likely be best for you to turn off your facial recognition technology. You would be better off using a secure passcode, PIN or even a fingerprint sensor if your phone has one. Although facial recognition is typically recommended, these other alternatives would be of better use for these models.

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Man staring into his phone.

If anyone owns a phone on Which’s list, the facial recognition feature should be turned off. (CyberGuy.com)

Be cautious with app permissions

Review the permissions requested by the apps on your phone. Limit the permissions granted to apps to ensure they only access necessary features and data. For example, be cautious about granting camera access to apps unless it’s essential.

Enable two-factor authentication (2FA)

Enable 2FA wherever possible, especially for critical accounts like email, banking, or social media. Two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security by requiring an additional verification step, usually through a unique code sent to your phone.

Regularly review your device’s setting

Take the time to review and adjust your device’s privacy and security settings. This may include disabling unnecessary features or permissions that could potentially compromise your privacy or security.

Use strong and unique passwords

Ensure that you have strong and unique passwords for your accounts. Avoid using easily guessable or common passwords. Consider using a password manager to securely store and generate strong passwords for you. It will help you to create unique and difficult-to-crack passwords that a hacker could never guess. Second, it also keeps track of all your passwords in one place and fills passwords in for you when you’re logging into an account so that you never have to remember them yourself.  The fewer passwords you remember, the less likely you will be to reuse them for your accounts.

What qualities should I look for in a password manager?

When it comes to choosing the best password manager for you, here are some of my top tips.

  • Deploys secure
  • Works seamlessly across all of your devices
  • Creates unique complicated passwords that are different for every account
  • Automatically populates login and password fields for apps and sites you revisit
  • Has a browser extension for all browsers you use to automatically insert passwords for you
  • Allows a failsafe in case the primary password is ever lost or forgotten
  • Checks that your existing passwords remain safe and alerts you if ever compromised
  • Uses two-factor authentication security

Check out my best expert-reviewed password managers of 2023 by heading to CyberGuy.com/Passwords

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CyberGuy.com offers an article that reviews the best password managers. (CyberGuy.com)

Kurt’s key takeaways

Facial recognition technology is great when it works 100% effectively. However, on certain phone models, including those from Samsung, Motorola, Oppo, Nokia, Xiaomi, and Vivo, it was found to be less secure in a recent test by not-for-profit consumer organization Which. The group found that certain smartphones could be unlocked with low-resolution photos of the owners. These disturbing findings highlight the need for stricter biometric security measures, however, in the meantime, if you own one of these phones, I advise you to disable facial recognition and opt for more secure alternatives like passcodes or fingerprint sensors.

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How concerned are you about the lack of decent facial recognition technology for these phones? Let us know by writing us at CyberGuy.com/Contact

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Expert tech and gaming writer, blending computer science expertise