The iPhone's fingerprint scanner: what you need to know
An Apple employee, right, instructs a journalist on the use of the fingerprint scanner technology built into the company's iPhone 5S during a media event held in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. (AP / Ng Han Guan)
Published Wednesday, September 11, 2013 1:51PM EDT
The biometric sensor, thinner than a human hair, can scan beneath the skin's surface to ensure that a fingerprint really is the user's and not a latex fake and, as a result, has the potential to kick-start a security revolution.
Tech watchers have been waiting for Apple to introduce a fingerprint reader to one of its devices ever since the company acquired AuthenTec, the biometric authentication company, back in 2012. But now that the feature, which Apple dubs the Touch ID, has arrived, is there any reason to get excited or, more importantly, to panic?
During his address, Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller, claimed that the Touch ID had been introduced to ensure security. The content of our smartphones is becoming more and more valuable and, according to Apple's own research, most people don't activate the passcode function on their iPhones and iPads that requires a four-digit PIN number to be entered in order to unlock the screen.
Nuance, another leading biometrics company, and the one that provides much of the voice-recognition technology behind Siri, Apple's voice-activated virtual assistant, claims that the traditional password is no longer fit for its purpose as it's impossible for consumers to create and remember multiple unique and complex logins. Its research shows that because the typical web user now needs more than 11 different passwords to go about their daily digital lives, too many people are reusing logins on multiple sites, exposing themselves to hackers in the process.
The Touch ID could be key to solving this problem -- a fingerprint is unique and, because of the depth at which the scanner can read, so far impossible to forge -- however, for the time being at least, the feature can only be used for unlocking an iPhone and for making purchases via a user's iTunes account. The company won't be letting developers leverage the technology to use in their own apps, for the time being at least.
However, data is data and an electronic device is an electronic device and there is still a risk that the fingerprint file could be hacked and its contents used. Apple said during the launch that to avoid any risks, the user's fingerprint would be stored solely on a unique, encrypted partition within the device and not externally. Apple's servers would not have access to a copy, nor can the information be backed up to iCloud.
For now, the traditional password is still alive and well and leaving web users seriously exposed to cyber attacks. But, where Apple leads, others follow and the company's decision to embrace biometrics and to do so in such a clearly considered manner, means that it it's only a matter of time before pet names, favorite colors and superheroes are consigned to the history bin as means of online authentication, to be replaced by physical tokens, fingerprints, retina scans and voice print analysis.
Expect a host of 2014 devices to feature very similar technology. Consumers should celebrate, and hackers might want to start considering a different career path.