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New York MTA asking Apple for better masked iPhone unlocking with Face ID

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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has asked Apple to make it easier and faster for users to unlock their iPhones without removing their masks, a problem that Apple has already worked on as part of May's iOS 13.5 update.

The New York MTA has sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook about the problems it faces over passengers needing to unlock their iPhones to pay for transportation. As many use iPhones with Face ID, this has led to passengers removing their face masks to be authenticated, risking the spread of COVID-19, according to the letter from MTA chairman Patrick Foye.

"We understand Apple is working to address the issue and know that Apple has a range of technologies at its disposal as a global leader among tech companies," the letter acquired by the Associated Press reads. "We urge Apple to accelerate the deployment of new technologies and solutions that further protect customers in the era of COVID-19."

The MTA is also said to be willing to cooperate with Apple on passenger messaging over the issue.

Apple has already taken steps in iOS 13.5 to mitigate the problem of Face ID failures for mask wearers. As part of its iOS 13.5 update in May, Apple altered Face ID so it quickly moved to the passcode entry screen if a mask is detected, rather than making users wait a few seconds and be tempted to remove the mask temporarily.

It isn't clear if Apple is willing to cut down on Face ID security by only requiring the upper half of the user's face for authentication, as this would reduce the number of data points Face ID has to work with for its checks.

Furthermore, in some situations there's no need to use Face ID at all. Apple's introduction of Apple Pay Express Transit enables iPhone and Apple Watch users to pay for travel in many public transport systems, without needing to unlock their iPhone to process the payment.

Express Transit is functional at selected stations in New York City, so the feature is only partially available on that transport network.