By Erik Christiansen
As a society, we increasingly depend on our smartphones for payments, boarding passes, web browsing, and all forms of communication. However, much of the information we store on these devices is extremely private. Pass codes/phrases, patterns, and face unlock are not sufficient security measures. True security requires multiple authentication steps - what is often referred to as two-factor authentication. This differs from two-step authentication, which is usually involves the user entering a password/phrase and using a randomly generated key. A good example of this is Google Authenticator. True two-factor authentication really requires something that you know (such as a password) and something that you are (like your DNA or fingerprint). It's for this reason, that biometric sensors will inevitably be coming to a large percentage of mobile devices.
The Mororola Atrix (a smartphone released in 2011) was the first (as far as I know) to include a fingerprint reader in the device. Like most first implementations, it didn't work well and most customers felt it was unreliable. But, I think Motorola deserves credit for planting this seed, as the feature did gain some attention.
On Tuesday, Apple released it's two new iPhones. The iPhone 5S, which replaces the (now retired) 5, and the 5C, which is essentially a colorful plastic iPhone 5.
Though some technology journalists didn't view the iPhone 5S' features as a surprise, the announcement did confirm my suspicion that Apple is moving in a unique direction - and refuses to direct all of its attention toward the competition. The 5S got the expected specification bump. More interesting, however, was the inclusion of a "Touch ID" fingerprint reader situated in the home button.
CNET provided a comprehensive overview of the fingerprint reader's capabilities. This biometric reader is a mere 170 microns thick, and it scans your fingerprint at an amazing 500ppi (pixels per inch). Saved fingerprints are read in an fashion that is orientation indifferent - meaning that your print will unlock the phone regardless of the angle or position of your finger. The scanner can save up to five different fingerprints, which could either mean either five of one's own fingers, or those of another user. All prints are allegedly encrypted and stored solely in the A7 chip on the phone, and is not uploaded to iCloud or Apple's servers.
Originally, I was not confident in imbedding such a sensitive device into the iPhone. My expectations were low, and I assumed that it would only be used as an "unlocking" tool, at least till the iPhone 6. Surprisingly, mobile payments - in iTunes - will be supported at launch. This is important for two reasons. One, it shows that Apple is confident enough in this technology (particularly its security) to use it for web commerce. This is huge. It will not be long before it could be used for in-app purchases (assuming there is an API at some point). Second, it's also likely that Apple "rushed" this out the door to make sure it was first to market. Generally, Apple does better when it's not first to market, and instead waits for its competitors to fail, so it may improve on their original idea. This case is different since Apple will clearly want to own this technology. Samsung, HTC, Google, and other competitors will no doubt try to replicate it. But, Apple's decision to purchase Authentech (a mobile security company), and being first to manufacture such a feature on mass, will make it hard for other tech companies to prove prior art in a patent case.
The wild card in this story is (unsurprisingly) the NSA. Since Edward Snowden leaded the security organization's massive surveillance undertaking, much of the public has lost faith in the big technology companies. I personally believe Apple when it says it takes security seriously, but many do not. Collecting the world' fingerprints would be a dream come true for the NSA, and because of this Touch ID will be a touch sell.