Touch ID: Apple’s iPhone 5S Fingerprint Biometrics Announcement

TouchIDEver since Apple acquired Authentec in July of 2012, and with it the design patents for fingerprint biometrics technology, the world of mobile security has been completely abuzz with rumors and speculation, not so much of whether or not we will see fingerprint biometrics powered locks in an iPhone, but when that sighting will occur.

Well, the wait is over. Just as has been predicted by everyone with a technology blog on the Internet and their mother was right to assume: the new iPhone 5S, available for pre-order this Friday, has a native fingerprint sensor, built right into the smartphone’s home button, called Touch ID.

The Apple event was long, and in true fashion saved the big stuff for last. After promoting the iTunes festival, the iPhone 5C (a colorful, smaller, less expensive, sans-biometrics iPhone 5) and an overview of iOS7, Tim Cook finally brought us around to the iPhone 5S.

He went into great depth explaining everything, from its five times faster speed to its new camera features. All the while a new silver ring around the home button went uncommented on. And then, just as it seemed like nobody was going to talk about the bright silver ring around the big elephant in the room, Tim Cook did it:

“The third feature is all about security,” he said, showing a comical stock photo depicting cartoonish law enforcement items. “The most common way is to set up a passcode,” he continued and then used a phrase we all know by heart, essentially that the new iPhone key is one that you have wherever you go.

He was of course talking about the fingerprint sensor: 170 microns thin, sensing 500 ppi, sub epidermal scanning, all made out of sapphire so that it won’t scratch. The silver halo is a detection ring that activates the sensor, which can authenticate multiple fingerprints,each encrypted and secured, never available to other software.

It can be used for both general phone security, touch activating past your lock screen, and for authentication, allowing for iTunes purchases and account sign-in.

TouchID2So, now that we can all congratulate ourselves for predicting this, lets take a look at where it all started and what it might lead to.

The rumor mill started to turn again this summer after the iOS 7 beta developers kit was released to prospective app makers. A toolkit that allows programmers to anticipate the capabilities of new operating system and the devices that will run them, the dev kit was intended to allow for the new iOS to have exclusive third-party applications on release.

One of the programmers who received the kit, British programmer Hamza Sood, uncovered code and setup tutorial image descriptions that strongly implied a biometric fingerprint sensor in the home button. Since the fateful night that Sood tweeted a screenshot of the revealing code fingerprint fever has gripped the world of mobile biometrics.

It is a testament to Apple’s public influence that this announcement is so touted and influential, as the new iPhone is not the first smartphone to feature native fingerprint scanning capabilities. In the wake of Sood’s leak, which lead to the dramatic increase in fingerprint sensor manufacturer stock, two Asian smartphones were released with Fingerprint Cards’ swipe sensor technology, and a series of design wins were announced for 2013 and 2014 biometrics-ready smartphones.

Not only that, but other biometric solutions are already available for the smartphone you might be reading this on. Iris scanning security applications, like the one available from EyeVerify, leverage the most standard issue phone hardware, its camera, to lock your phone and files with eyeprint data.

mobile money iphone

The Touch ID could be the first step on the road to iPhone enabled mobile payment. It’s already going to allow Apple ID purchases.

Should we be surprised by the Apple announcement? No. But should we be excited?

The implications of having a fingerprint biometric sensor on an iPhone are great when it comes to the world of mobile payment protection. Go to any Apple Store and you will notice that it is eagerly anticipating the day when its staff can do away with the bulky mobile POS systems, (which admittedly are miles ahead of what almost any other retail store offers) in favor of iPhone mobile payment solutions (iPayment or iWallet maybe) that operate on biometric authentication and NFC.

A fingerprint sensor is easy to setup and use, interesting enough to capture the attention of the public who is largely unconcerned with proper password or PIN protection and secure enough to offer adequate payment protection.

In the end, there is plenty of reason to be excited about this announcement, not so much because of the innovative functionality, but because of the mainstream popularity this will bring to fingerprint sensor phones. Even if the sellers of the iLifestyle somehow drop the ball on the fingerprint sensor possibilities and it just becomes a gimmick, the boost this whole ordeal has provided for strong mobile authentication will inevitably lead to the final nail in the coffin for the password, and signal in the age of the mobile payment.