Just hours before Apple takes the wrappers off of its latest flagship iPhone 5S, more rumors have surfaced about the device’s worst-kept secret – its new biometric fingerprint reader technology that’s designed to do away with the need for passwords.
The Wall Street Journal has all but confirmed the presence of the new feature, adding that people familiar with the matter said that the fingerprint scanner will be on the more expensive of the two iPhones expected to be unveiled today. The WSJ noted that, “Placing a finger on a computer or smartphone has long been proposed as a way to avoid the need for passwords to authenticate users of computers and other devices.”
Apple is by no means the first tech company to use fingerprint reading technology on its devices. Both Motorola and LG have had similar technology on their phones in the past, but the Cupertino-based company is hoping that the feature, combined with the iPhone’s higher profile, will make it attractive to those concerned about their security – particularly business users.
But fingerprint readers don’t come without their concerns. For one thing, previous efforts to implement the feature on laptops and smartphones have been unpopular as its proved to be unreliable, often taking several efforts to scan and register your fingerprint. Even so, privacy fears have been heightened in recent weeks due to the NSA spying scandal, as well as the rise of fraud and hacking scams.
Assuming Apple can get its fingerprint readers to work reliably – and given its Apple Maps fiasco, that’s by no means guaranteed – it could offer extra benefits as a security token. For instance, it could be used as an additional verification method for Google accounts if a user pairs their iPhone with their account and tries to login from a new machine. Meanwhile, Apple could also use the technology with its iTunes store to reduce fraud.
New Security Feature – New Security Fears?
Ironically, the fingerprint reader’s presence has raised new security fears in some quarters, with a number of experts warning that the technology could potentially be hacked, while some have questioned what Apple might do with the biometric data it collects.
Besides being a handy password replacement, finegrprints are most commonly used by the police and security services as a way of tracking criminals and performing checks on citizens. Of course, Apple is unlikely to want to get involved in this business itself, but with doubts raised about just how closely tech firms are cooperating (or should we say, bending over backwards) with agencies like the NSA, anyone concerned about a dystopian future is likely to be wary of this. Apple hasn’t said what it will do with this data, but it might decided to keep its user’s fingerprints in some kind of central repository – which could well mean that the NSA has unrestricted access to them.
Writing in Wired, Bruce Schneier notes that this isn’t necessarily the case – Apple might decide to store this data locally on each device, an option that carries far less concerns for the end user. But if Apple does choose to store this data on a remote server, and it can be used to access services ranging from Google to iCloud, and Dropbox to various online bank accounts, this is obviously going to be a risky move – in his article, Scheier says that the technology can almost certainly be hacked – and so Apple may well find it hard to convince users its the safest thing to do.
Why Apple Needs A Biometric Advantage
The potential benefits for Apple if it can pull this off are far bigger than most people realize. Tech companies and consumers alike have long been disenchanted with traditional password security, and whoever comes up with the first reliable successor to that could make an absolute killing. We’ve seen all kinds of weird and wonderful proposed solutions, from USB keys to brain-wave readers, but biometrics are by far and away the simplest option. If Apple’s fingerprint reader proves reliable, and if user’s trust it, it would become a massive selling point for Apple’s devices, which would make all kinds of cloud and web-based services easier to use – no more clunkiness or fuss, just set up your Dropbox or bank account once, and you’re good to go.
More than anything else, this feature would give Apple the edge when it comes to the enterprise, and that’s exactly what this is all about. The company is engaged in a brutal battle with Android and to a lesser extent, Microsoft, to attract enterprise users, and fingerprint technology could give it a clear advantage over its rivals. And because Apple is staking so much on its biometric security, that alone should give us confidence that it’ll be totally secure.