Apple gives all of us the finger

By building a fingerprint reader into the next gen iPhone, Apple has ushered in the golden age of biometric IDs – for better and worse.

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By now you’ve probably heard all about Apple’s latest big iPhone announcement. Lightweight plastic cases (huzzah!) available in five colors (woohoo!) with a spiffy new OS (schwing!). For me, though, one part of Tuesday’s announcement easily outweighs all the others for sheer significance: The Touch ID fingerprint sensor built into the home button on the 5S.

Not that this was a surprise. Everybody saw that coming after Apple acquired fingerprint technology company AuthenTec in July 2012. But this makes the iPhone 5S the first truly mainstream device that uses biometrics in place of a pass code. Just hold down your finger to unlock your phone – easy peasy.

Sure, cheap fingerprint scanners that plug into our computers have been around for years, but almost no one uses them. Facial recognition software that uses your webcam or cell phone camera to let you log into sites is also cheap and readily available, but again, hardly anyone ever uses it. Pricey iris, facial, and voice recognition systems are also in use, but mostly at expensive high security facilities.

All of that is about to change in a big way. The iPhone fingerprint reader will usher in an era where proving who we are becomes the key to unlocking what we use. I predict that within five years biometric readers will be a familiar way to access devices, and that in ten years we won’t remember doing it in any other way.

My body is my password

There are both positive and negative aspects to this. As we all know, passwords suck – they’re annoying, easy to forget, easy to steal, and usually easy to crack. Virtually anything else would be an improvement, especially something that requires no thought whatsoever because it’s part of your body’s DNA.

On the dark side, there’s the obvious observation that once systems can determine with almost perfect certainty who we are – as well as where we are and what we are doing – any slivers of privacy we might have left after the Snowden revelations are pretty much obliterated.

Is it time for the obligatory Minority Report reference? It is. Or better yet, a video clip.

And by the way, this kind of iris scanning technology is already commercially available and being deployed at schools and airports. It’s not quite as seamless or ubiquitous as in the movie, but give it time.

Today your fingerprints; tomorrow your eyeballs. And eventually, precogs who will have you arrested for merely thinking about doing bad things.

The Apple mystique

By making biometrics a part of our phones, Apple will greatly accelerate the acceptance of it for other uses. That’s my theory anyway.

Fortunately, Apple appears to have gotten a big part of it right by allowing the fingerprint data to only be stored locally on the phone itself. That avoids one of the big potential dangers of biometrics: storing the data in a cloud accessible database that hackers could subvert by substituting alternate identity data matched to your biometrics – essentially stealing your fingerprints.  

Another positive aspect: Apple is only using the fingerprint for two things: unlocking the phone and verifying purchases from the iTunes store. But whether it will let app developers get their hands on our fingerprints at some later date is the $64 billion question. That could make things much stickier. Other collectors of biometric data may not be so careful, or may choose to use it in ways you don’t anticipate.

Remember, in our heavily surveilled society, most forms of tracking are still fairly inexact. Advertisers may collect our browser histories, but they don’t really know who’s sitting at the keyboard. App makers may hoover up our location data, but our phones could be carried by anyone. Even the NSA, busy listening in to our calls, won’t really know who’s doing the talking. Unless, of course, they use voice recognition – a biometric – to identify you.

With biometrics, there is almost no doubt who’s doing what, where, and when. If that doesn’t give you pause, well, maybe it should.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he'll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to's, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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