How do Windows 10 facial recognition passwords work?

26 Feb 2016

Passwords could become a thing of the past with Windows Hello and RealSense cameras. This Windows 10 feature can learn to recognise your face and automatically log you on when you sit down in front of your computer. 

What is a RealSense camera?

RealSense cameras can see in 3D. This makes them ideal for facial recognition, because they can create a map of your face that your computer can refer to when it scans. RealSense also has an infrared camera than can detect the shape of your face even in low light conditions.

Of course, you can use these cameras as an ordinary webcam, but things get really interesting when you can scan real, three dimensional, objects with them. You can then make a digital version of the object and even print it on a 3D printer.

RealSense cameras come built into a number of laptops and all-in-one computers, such as the Lenovo IdeaCentre 700 we used for this article, or can be purchased on their own.

What is Windows Hello?

Microsoft describes Windows Hello as “a more personal way to sign into your Windows 10 devices with just a look or touch”. In addition to the traditional ways of logging in, like using a password or a pin, you can also set up biometric passwords using your face, fingerprint or iris.

(image source: Microsoft)

Windows Hello will automatically offer you these additional options if your computer setup supports them, otherwise those options won’t appear.

How easy is it to set up a facial recognition password?

We tested Windows Hello’s facial recognition software on a Lenovo IdeaCentre 700 all-in-one PC to see how easy it was to use, and how effective it was.

Setting up the password was much more straightforward than we expected and only took a minute. Once we had Windows Hello up and running, Windows takes you through the process step by step.

We found the easiest way to open Windows Hello is to simply type “Windows Hello” into the search box on the bottom left of your screen. Once it’s open, set up a PIN if you haven’t done so already, then choose Set Up under the Face section.

The computer will display a box telling you how to position yourself. When you’re ready, click “Get Started”. RealSense will scan your face – this will take a few seconds – and then you’ll get the “All Set” message.

You have the option here to “improve recognition”. This is useful if you wear glasses and you can take a photo wearing them and without them.

Can you fool the facial recognition password with a photo?

In a word, no. We tried using a photo taken in the exact same position and pose as where we set our facial recognition password. Windows Hello wouldn’t even begin scanning it, no matter how close or how far away from the camera we held it.

The reason you can’t use a photo to fool the system is down to the 3D RealSense camera. This effectively creates a 3D map of your face that Windows can use for reference. A photo is 2D, so it can’t trick Windows because it’s only a flat image.

You can add an extra layer of security to your facial recognition by selecting the option to turn your face to the left and right when logging in – something a photo cannot replicate.

What are the benefits of a facial recognition password?

Biometric passwords, such as facial recognition, are very difficult to crack. The reason that face, fingerprint and iris scanning is chosen is that these things are unique to you. Somebody may be able to guess and enter an ordinary password, but they can’t do the same thing with something like your face.

Unlike a normal password, you can’t forget a biometric password – Once they’re set up, all you need to do is sit in front of the computer, let it scan, and you’ll have access.

In addition to logging on to your computer, you can also use your facial recognition password to verify your identity when adjusting settings, or to buy apps from the Windows 10 Store.

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