Google Face Unlock research uses crazy expressions to secure your Android

Google is exploring new facial-recognition security systems that could involve pulling strange expressions at your Android smartphone, in an attempt to bolster the easily-fooled Face Unlock option. The research, revealed in a Google patent application, would combine existing face-matching systems with a preconfigured movement or gesture, such as moving an eyebrow, sticking out a tongue, or frowning.

Without that movement or post, the unlock system would not allow the phone or tablet to be accessed. The device would compare two shots from a video stream to identify the correct gesture, as well as other frames which would indicate the user was actually moving, rather than the phone's forward-facing camera being shown still images in an attempt to fool it.

The enhancement of the security system comes after Google's original Face Unlock was criticized for the ease with which it could be manipulated. Initially, Face Unlock used a single frame, matching the face of the user against a pre-stored image of them it had learned; however, that could be readily conned with a single photo of that user.

Google returned to the labs and then rolled out an updated version of Face Unlock, which added in systems intended to gage whether the user was actually a live person or an image. Those enhancements, which tracked blinking and other movements, made the option slightly more effective, but the so-called "liveness check" could still be bypassed with doctored images.

In response, Google's engineers have been even more thorough. Although the patent application begins by suggesting a series of movements could be taught to the phone, which only the authorized user would know, it concedes that a video recording could then be used to mimic the unlock sequence.

Instead, then, it says it could build in a 3D rangefinder, using lasers to map the contours of the user's face and so ensure it was a real person making the gestures rather than a two-dimensional video clip. Alternatively, by shining different colors of light into the user's eyes, and then using the camera to track reflections, the Android device could reassure itself the person was real that way.

Unsurprisingly, Google isn't confirming anything, telling the BBC that, while it patents plenty of research, that doesn't necessarily mean that it'll end up in a shipping product. With Face Unlock still being seen as something of a gimmick, however, we'd not be surprised if the next versions of Android had bolstered biometrics to address the system's shortcomings.