2013-07-30

What A Fingerprint Sensor Means For iOS

The Home button of the next iPhone may contain an embedded fingerprint sensor, enabling the device to act as the brains for more secure communications and transactions than ever before. Like what, exactly?



Fragments of code hidden in the latest beta release of Apple's iOS 7 contain several lines of text that have the tech world up in arms. The strings make specific mention to an built-in fingerprint scanner in the iPhone, located on or near the Home button. Seemingly, and confirming months of speculation, the next flagship Apple smartphone will be able to read your fingerprints. And that's actually grounds for excitement.

Firstly, the idea Apple would add biometric ID sensing to its phone shouldn't really come as a surprise. Back in October 2012 Apple won a patent for a fingerprint-based biometric unlock. It's a simple design that's incorporated into Apple's signature "slide to unlock" touchscreen unlock system, and in one of the mechanisms Apple talks about it seems pretty seamless: After you've slid your finger over the screen the phone prompts you to put your finger on a window next to the home button. The phone IDs you and then proceeds to the homescreen, having positively identified the operator as the genuine owner and user of the phone.

Separately Apple bought fingerprint tech firm AuthenTec for about $350 million last summer, and was said even then to be considering using fingerprint tech in the iPhone 5, released in the fall of 2012. So the company has been researching this technology for a while, and has spent at least a third of a billion dollars in M&A activities to support securing the iPhone (and presumably iPad, and possibly Macs) for a while.

The interesting bit of this equation, of course, is why Apple would be interested in popping a fingerprint system into the iPhone. The example mentioned above and in the patent is the most obvious one—it's a super-secure way to confirm the identity of the particular user of the phone. A fingerprint system that's hard-wired into the circuitry and the firmware of the phone is far harder to defeat than a PIN code, password, and even Android gesture-based unlock...particularly important news when it's possible to use a cheap robot to physically crack a phone's password by dabbing at the screen enough times.

Considering that the iPhone has been blamed for driving up muggings by none other than the mayor of New York, perhaps the idea of securing the login to an iPhone may be a deterrent to theft: If the phone is going to bricked or completely immobilized by Apple's "Find My iPhone" service, and there's no way around the phone's security other than to use the pre-approved fingerprint, discerning thieves may be dissuaded.

Casual thieves won't, though. Because fingerprint IDs on an iPhone could be much more important. It's plausible that Apple would parcel off special user data behind a security system that requires another swipe of the user's fingertips—meaning that passwords, specially flagged photos (*ahem*), and banking details, would be doubly protected. Smartphone fingerprint accessory firm CrucialTec demonstrated exactly this sort of function for Android phones at this year's Mobile World Congress event. The idea of a fingerprint system on an iPhone is thus a matter of data security as well as hardware security.

Developer's ears will prick up at this point, because presumably there will be an official Apple API that hooks up to the fingerprint IDs and thus allows third parties to secure data inside apps. One can immediately imagine Dropbox liking the idea. Perhaps there's even scope for innovative uses of fingerprint hardware in the iPhone, in ways that Apple can't imagine right now—implementations as esoteric as gaming or TV apps.

But it's the mention of banking data that really makes fingerprint ID on an iPhone very powerful. Alongside other rumors that the next iPhone will finally have NFC technology, this means the iPhone could become a powerful tool for mobile payments. Apple's might married to payment technology in the globally popular iPhone with an extra-secure fingerprint system would potentially please the credit card and banking industry.

It's unlikely that third-party developers will get a look-in on this part of the process, but a mobile payments service could lead to all sorts of ancillary systems on an iPhone including gathering metadata or promoting adverts at the point of sale. And this is the point that third-party app developers may be able to make a killing on. Adverts, coupons, games, promotional stunts...just think about it, and keep your fingers crossed that fingerprint ID really is coming to iPhone.

[Image: Flickr user Graham Richardson]






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