I've changed my mind about unlocking your iPhone with your Apple Watch — it sucks

Apple Watch Series 6 Review
Apple Watch Series 6 Review (Image credit: Lory Gil / iMore)

A few weeks ago, Apple enabled the ability for your Apple Watch to unlock your iPhone in situations where Face ID can't work — namely when you're wearing a mask. The feature is available in the newest versions of iOS 14 and watchOS 7 and was generally viewed as a positive thing; heck, I rejoiced pretty hard when the feature launched and starting using it right away. After all, when I'm out in a mask with my best iPhone, I want to be able to unlock it quickly.

After about a week or so of using the new feature, something happened that made me realize that using Unlock with Apple Watch can be a pretty big security risk — my partner unlocked my iPhone, and I didn't notice. I haven't used the feature since it dawned on me then that Unlock with Apple Watch is a workaround that undermines the security of Face ID.

The incident

Here's a quick breakdown of how it all happened.

I was in the store with my partner buying groceries, so I was wearing a face mask. I gave my partner my phone to hold as I was buying some items, and she proceeded to stick the phone in front of my face while making a joke about how I always make her hold things (sorry, babe). I didn't think anything of it; I had a mask on, so it's not like Face ID would work, right? Wrong. I had just unlocked my Apple Watch to check a text message, so Unlock with Apple Watch opened my iPhone right away when she stuck it in my face. She then proceeded to text my own number a silly message so I would get the notification on my wrist and see what she had done.

Before you point at the screen and state the obvious, I'll do it for you. Obviously, this incident was very specific, and it's not like I just give my iPhone to just anyone to hold; however, it still made me think about how serious that incident could have been if something nefarious was going on. When I'm out and about, I constantly am unlocking my Apple Watch via my passcode to check messages, check my Activity Rings, or for a plethora of other reasons. It wouldn't be hard for someone who is less than kind to notice that and use it against me.

Unlock with Apple Watch just isn't as secure

Face ID (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Although Apple did put security features into place with the Unlock with Apple Watch feature, it's still more of a security risk than just using Face ID. The whole point of biometric authentication is to authenticate that you are unlocking your iPhone. Unlock with Apple Watch never truly authenticates the user in a foolproof way. Yes, you need a passcode for your Apple Watch, but we all know that numeric passcodes aren't nearly as secure as Face ID, and the average person tends to have very weak passwords and passcodes. When you use Unlock with Apple Watch, Face ID doesn't get to scan your face, it just notices that it's blocked by something. It's entirely plausible that someone could steal your iPhone and Apple Watch, figure out your Apple Watch passcode, and boom, there into your entire phone. Is it highly likely? Perhaps not, but why put yourself at risk.

While I certainly don't blame Apple for making this workaround — people were clamoring for it — and I certainly don't blame people for using it, I just couldn't stomach the idea of my iPhone getting broken into. I want my iPhone to be as secure as it possibly can be, and Unlock with Apple Watch isn't the answer. Honestly, the issue I have with Unlock with Apple Watch is a testament to just how secure Face ID is and how much I have come to rely on it to keep my iPhone safe.

Luckily, there's a pretty easy solution to this mess.

Apple needs to bring back Touch ID

Touch ID sensors on multiple iPhones (Image credit: iMore)

If you're going to use biometric authentication, you can't build in workarounds that almost negate any real authentication at all. Instead, the best way to solve this whole problem is to bring back Touch ID.

Before last year, I would have been shocked to see Touch ID ever make a comeback to the flagship iPhone models. When Apple first introduced Face ID, it was clear that Apple had made its choice and Face ID was the way of the future. In Apple's mind, Face ID was better, and bringing back Touch ID could have been seen as admitting it was not. But now, Apple doesn't have to worry about that. There is a legitimate need for Touch ID to come back to the next iPhone, and Apple wouldn't have to worry about public or investor perception that something is wrong with Face ID.

Of course, I don't think Apple has any plans to bring back the old Touch ID sensor to the flagship iPhones because going back to the design of the iPhone SE (2020) would be a huge step back. The good news is there are other options, and if the iPhone 13 rumors are true, we just might get one of them.

I would expect Apple to put Touch ID either on the side button — much like the power button on the iPad Air 4 — or for them to put it under the front glass. In either case, having Touch ID again would put an end to the need to unlock your iPhone with your Apple Watch and bring back the security we deserve to have on our iPhone.

What do you think?

Are you fine with unlocking your iPhone with your Apple Watch? Or, do you choose not to use the feature? Let us know in the comments down below.

Luke Filipowicz
Staff Writer

Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way. 

Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.