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Why would Apple add a fingerprint sensor to the iPhone?

Marco Tabini | Aug. 21, 2013
As rumors suggest that Apple may announce a new iPhone as soon as next month, the speculation game, never at less than a low simmer, has heated up to a rolling boil.

As rumors suggest that Apple may announce a new iPhone as soon as next month, the speculation game, never at less than a low simmer, has heated up to a rolling boil.

Much of the theorizing has revolved around the possibility that Apple will add a fingerprint scanner to the iPhone, either incorporating it directly in the Home button, or, as indicated in a patent granted to the company in 2012, situating it in a dedicated area of the handset's front screen. Such technology is far from science fiction--and it could actually provide real, tangible benefits to iOS device owners.

All thumbs
Though it might sound like the kind of technology you'd find in a Mission: Impossible movie, fingerprint scanners are already in widespread use in various industries. If you've recently had the pleasure of taking an international flight, for example, officials in your  destination country may have used one to record your biometric information before issuing you a visa.

The rumors that Apple will include such technology didn't materialize out of thin air, either: In 2012, Apple in 2012 acquired AuthenTec, a Florida-based company that specializes in exactly the kind of hardware that the new iPhone would need if it were to support fingerprint scanning. In addition, some code spelunkers say that they've found evidence of software related to fingerprint scanning in iOS 7 developer betas.

One factor, two factor, red factor, blue factor
So what might a fingerprint scanner be used for? The obvious answer is user authentication.

Establishing a user's identity is a surprisingly tricky business. Even under the best circumstances, passwords--which have long been the primary means of handling authentication--can ensure only that the person logging in knows the right password. And despite years of effort to instill good password hygiene in the average user, countless users still employ password as their password.

Passwords aren't supposed to be used in this fashion anyway. In security parlance, a password counts as one "factor," establishing something that the user knows. To be effective, the password must be combined with additional factors--generally something that the user owns  and/or something that the user is.

A mobile phone constitutes the ideal "ownership" factor, leading to a proliferation of two-factor authentication mechanisms, such as the ones used by Google, Twitter, and even Apple's own iCloud: Since an official authority exists that associates an individual phone number with each device, entering a code that has been sent by SMS to a previously registered handset confirms that the person trying to log in is in possession of a recognizable and unique object.

 

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