Reports from factory production lines and leaked parts indicate that Apple is about to put a fingerprint sensor into its next-generation flagship iPhone 5S. But what exactly can a fingerprint sensor do for the average consumer?What does it do?
A fingerprint reader or sensor does what it says on the tin – it scans your fingerprint and matches it to a pre-defined image of your finger. Since every fingerprint is unique, the system can then securely verify your identity.How does it do it?
A type of image capture system specialised for quickly capturing and storing the imprint of your finger will be embedded below a swipe panel – in this case possibly below the home button on the iPhone 5S – which the user runs their finger over. The sensor captures the image and software analyses it for the skin indentation pattern on your fingertip, comparing it to a set of pre-stored data and verifying your identity. According to a recent patent filed by Apple in Europe, the sensor will implement an RF sensing system that will not only accurately capture the ridges of your finger, but also image the live skin below the surface of your fingertip to prevent spoofing of the system with a Mission Impossible-style fake fingerprint.What will it enable?
Potentially, fingerprint readers could sound the death knell for passwords. The multi-character password is a failing piece of security, given that pretty much any password can be cracked by high-powered computers these days, regardless of how long or complex it is. Two-factor authentication, where another piece of the security puzzle, such as a secret code or key, is used to strengthen simple password logins is currently the best system on offer to consumers.
In theory, fingerprint scanners could allow users to completely remove the need for passwords, securely logging into their phones, and enabling higher security functions, which would be particularly useful for online banking and shopping without the need for two-factor authentication.
A built-in fingerprint scanner could also make the iPhone more amenable to big business for security reasons, although in reality, according to Matthew Finnie, CTO at Interoute, the owner operator of Europe's largest cloud services platform, "the smartphone is now intrinsic to how people work, so it's time for businesses to change".
"Rather than focusing on the security merits and nuances of the devices, attention should shift to how businesses should secure and control corporate data and make relevant parts securely accessible from anything, anywhere."Will it really work?
Fingerprint scanners in the past have been a bit hit and miss. The technology, although relatively established in industry and enterprise settings, has never really been available to the mass market consumer or on anything other than secure laptops. That's generally because it has been a frustrating experience for the end user.
If Apple manages to make the process of secure login via an in-built fingerprint sensor a smooth and seamless experience, it could revolutionise the way consumers use their phones and bring about faster, more secure platforms for developers to expand upon.
However, there have been rumours that the sensor Apple is expected to build into its next iPhone flagship has a limited use lifetime. For example, a rumoured 500-scan limit "could be used up in only six months, based on users accessing multiple accounts three times a day. This would render the scanner useless for the remainder of a typical mobile phone contract, potentially 18 months," according to research by David Webber, managing director of Intelligent Environment, a specialist in the financial security field. If a consumer keeps their smartphone for two years, as is the length of many mobile phone contracts currently, there is a possibility that the fingerprint sensor could fail, or cease to work leaving users stranded without access to secure logins for their phone, banking or shopping.What alternatives are there?
Biometric authentication, where a unique part of your body's function is used to verify your identity, is a growing field. Many different factors can be used to securely identify the consumer. Iris scanners were once hailed as the holy grail of identification, but the technology required to scan an iris accurately is both expensive and often bulky – not something suitable for phones yet. Recently the unique rhythm of individual heartbeats has been pushed forward as another tool in the biometric armoury, with a bracelet such as the Nymi that monitors your pulse on your wrist, which would offer a much more realistic and consumer-friendly entry into biometric security./The Guardian/