Fingerprint Security: An Important—Though Imperfect—Solution

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

The Mobile Revolution...Starting with the Apple App Store

Tablet computers existed long before Apple unveiled the iPad. It was only when Cupertino got into the mix, however, that the category exploded. Likewise, phones were gradually getting smarter for years—led by then Research in Motion’s BlackBerry—but the move from niche to preeminence really began with the iPhone.

The world has changed, and Apple no longer totally dominates. It almost is a law of nature that power concentrated in one company over time will become diffuse. One firm can’t employ all the smart business and technical people.

That said, what Apple says probably still matters most, just by a somewhat smaller margin. That doesn’t just matter for finished products. It also goes for the features and functions within. For instance, one of the reasons that near-field communications (NFC) has had a slower adoption than original was projected is that it never was embraced by Apple.


Another existing technique in which Apple’s attitude is important is fingerprint sensors. The Touch ID technology in the iPhone 5s, according to GigaOm, is an important vote of confidence in the technology.

The idea is that passwords are not the most user-friendly way to control device access:

The smartphone and its similarly keyboard-deprived cousin, the tablet, increasingly represent the jumping off point for the Internet today. Sometimes, it may start with a browser. Many times it begins with an app. In either case, passwords are no fun when you move to a mobile device. They are cumbersome to type and annoying when you have to type them repeatedly across multiple sites, services and apps. So anything that diminishes the burden of typing passwords on a mobile device is a good thing.

Biometrics in general and fingerprint biometrics in particular must be considered very carefully. The starting off point is the biggest headline: Touch ID on the iPhone 5s already has been broken. The Chaos Computer Club—which is mainly focused in Germany—said that it has cracked the security with items it says are found around most homes. Engadget has the details:

The process, requires a 2400 DPI photograph of someone's fingerprint from a glass surface, which is then laser printed at 1200 DPI and used to create a thin latex sheet that serves as the fake.

To the casual observer, that would seem like game, set and match: The technology has been defeated before it really caught on.

But that may not be the case. At PCWorld, Tony Bradley argues that electronic security, just like its real-world counterpart, is more a deterrent than a panacea. Antivirus software is fallible, but universally used. The same goes for locks on front doors, clubs on car steering wheels and so on. The idea is to provide a basic level of protection that demands a higher level of expertise to defeat it. This will keep away the bottom feeders and encourage those with the requisite knowledge to move on to easier targets.

Another issue to consider in the world of biometrics is what happens after a hack. Dave Aitel, the CEO of the consultancy Immunity, points out that the nature of biometrics makes it a higher stakes game. Defeated antivirus software can be replaced. It is a bit more difficult to replace one’s fingerprint after it has been hacked.

Biometric fingerprint scanning will be a valuable tool. Hopefully, it will become more common in use. In addition to keeping iPhones and iPads secure, it offers a potentially game-changing approach to securing firearms.



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