Biometrics Pioneer Gives Thumbs Up to iPhone Fingerprint Scanner

5s home button gold

Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint scanner has been welcomed as a “major step forward” by Biometrics expert Philip Smith, whose company pioneered the technology a decade ago.

“It’s a huge milestone in bringing fingerprint-based biometrics to the mainstream,” he said. “I’m thrilled to see this.”

Of course a biometrics would welcome an advance like this. But Touch ID has already set off a firestorm of controversy among privacy advocates who say there could be lots of Big Brother implications, especially following revelations by Der Spiegel Online that the N.S.A. already has the ability to capture photos, GPS data, contacts and texts from iPhones.

Touch ID, the fingerprint scanner that will debut in the iPhone 5s on September 20, is limited to unlocking the phone and authenticating purchases on Apple’s online music and book stores. But Philips said he hopes it will soon open up a host of new applications.

“You can see how this technology could make its way into any systems that today require keys, passwords, swipe cards, ID badges,” he said. “Personally I’d love the idea that my iPhone could replace my car keys, house keys, ATM card and electronic ID badge for the office – but if I lost it no-one else could use it that way. Of course, Apple will only enable this where it fits their strategy, but their leadership in this space really validates this biometric approach.”

UPEK's fingerprint readers were built into laptops like this IBM Thinkpad.

UPEK’s fingerprint readers were built into laptops like this IBM ThinkPad.

Philips was an executive at UPEK, an early biometrics pioneer that built finger-print scanners for laptops by IBM (now Lenovo), Toshiba, Dell and others. In 2010, UPEK merged with Authentec, which in turn was acquired by Apple in 2012. Authentec’s technology is believed to to be the basis of Apple’s Touch ID system.

One of the major missing pieces is whether the iPhone contains a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip, which would make it compatible with current point-of-sale terminals and electronic badge readers. It’s not clear whether or not the iPhone 5s has an NFC chip. Apple has made no mention of it. However, it seems unlikely. Apple has long resisted NFC — even as Android handset makers have built it into more and more devices. Last year, Apple’s marketing head Phil Schiller said it’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem, and that Apple is taking a “go-slow approach” to mobile payments.

Philips said NFC would be a key component to make mobile payments work, and if the iPhone doesn’t have NFC, Apple will likely develop something else. “I would think the payments and mobile commerce will be the priority,” he said. “But someone will figure it out.”

Philips said there were lots of challenges developing fingerprint scanners 10 years ago: sensor size, sensitivity, what happens if the sensor is covered or partly covered, and security issues like sandboxing fingerprint processing from non-secure environments on the laptop.

“The ultimate vision we had even back then was that the fingerprint would become the replacement for passwords in authenticating the user for a myriad of situations beyond access to the immediate device,” he said.

UPEK even tried to recruit Apple as a customer. “Ironically, 10 years ago Apple constantly resisted the idea of fingerprint sensors in their MacBooks for various reasons, including the fact that they did not fit into their design ethic,” he said.

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  • rsbell

    Good to see you back posting again, Leander.

    Does this mean the book is done?

About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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