New evidence has surfaced in the Chromium Gerrit, reported by Chrome Unboxed, that suggests a face detection features previously seen in the commits point to incoming facial recognition on select Chromebooks. The commit points to the Intel Photography Vision Library, portions of which were spotted in the repository back in August. Exploring that library more thoroughly reveals that it serves a number of purposes, including both face detection and facial recognition.
Facial recognition for security purposes also appears to be one of the primary uses of Intel's solution. Faces would be scanned when they enter a designated 'area', indicating that the face would need to be within a certain range of the camera's field of view. In effect, it recognizes ‘known users’ from a stored database of faces and grant access to a machine if a match is made.
Testing to enable facial recognition-based security has been shown prior to the new commits for HP’s Chromebook x2, the Samsung Chromebook Plus v2, and Google’s own Pixel Slate. A fourth gadget, codenamed ‘Atlas’ and still thought to be a still unreleased new Pixel-branded device, is included in the tests as well. There's no timeframe in place for pushing facial recognition to the stable user-ready OS or any other implementation of Chrome.
What does this mean?
The initial introduction of Intel's face detection and recognition libraries in the Chrome repository didn't provide much information at all, particularly in terms of features it would be tied to. That remains the case but the addition of Intel Photography Vision Library does make it clear that some form of facial detection is incoming. That's led to a fair amount of speculation about whether or not facial recognition would be used for security at all, as now seems to be at least probable.
This isn't the first new verification method that's been added to the ever-expanding Chromium repository either. With its Pixel Slate, Google introduced native fingerprint reading to Chrome OS gadgets and both passwords and pins have been usable for quite some time too. Google is also still rolling out connectivity features as part of its 'Better Together' Chrome OS push the enable a smartphone in close proximity to keep a Chromebook unlocked.
In each of those cases, a Google account password is still required on startup and that isn't expected to change with facial recognition. While more advanced, 3D scanning-based methods for face recognition can be considered fairly secure, the 2D cameras found on even the best Chromebooks fall short on the security and reliability front. At best, the feature might be used similarly to how a smartphone can be used to keep the device logged in after the password is put in on the initial boot up.
The addition of face detection and facial recognition could easily be used beyond security. At least initially, the ability to detect faces could bring a wealth of improvements to the OS's camera app and capabilities.
Why this might lead to a more impactful introduction outside of Chromebooks
Stepping back from Chromebooks, the addition of facial recognition in the Chromium Gerrit could feasibly extend to fall in line with other authentication changes that have been made in the surrounding ecosystem too. Most recently, Android 7.0 and newer handsets gained FIDO2 certification, meaning that websites and apps could be signed into using just a fingerprint without a password.
As cameras on both Android handsets and Chromebooks continue to improve, facial recognition in Chrome could eventually lead to more biometrics -- face scans -- providing yet another option for signing in without a password on both Chrome OS and Android.
Facial recognition for signing in across the board isn't really feasible for the time being and would still be particularly dodgy as a replacement of fingerprint readers and passwords for anything that really needs to be secure since facial recognition methods aren't anywhere near perfect yet. That doesn't mean it won't eventually happen thanks to new features such as those enabled with the latest updates pushing authentication in that direction and away from the password-based security widely in use today.