Why I won’t be using fingerprint sensors on smart devices

Robert C. Johnston.


APPLE has just unveiled the iPhone 5s, and it has a handy (no pun intended) new feature – a fingerprint scanner. While incorporating these scanners on consumer devices is not a new idea – some laptop computers and other phones have them – its inclusion on the iPhone 5s clearly throws the security feature into the limelight.

Using the fingerprint scanner to unlock the iPhone 5s

Using the fingerprint scanner to unlock the iPhone 5s

Straight up, it is a cool feature. Simply pressing your finger to the home button to unlock your iPhone is more convenient than a password. Using it to authorise iTunes purchases, and perhaps down the track to verify internet banking transfers, is much less hassle than having to provide answers to security questions or trying to remember our rapidly expanding collection of passwords.

But I must say I can’t help but feel uneasy at the idea of using my fingerprint – something that is irreplaceable – just for the sake of convenience. Apple says that your fingerprint data will be encrypted and stored securely only on the phone, and not uploaded to Apple’s servers. I guess we have to take Apple’s word for it, but no one can say that any consumer electronic device is one hundred per cent secure. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone figures out how to extract fingerprint data from the iPhone’s A7 chip.

Using biometrics as electronic security authentication and personal identification has been around for ages but until recently it has mainly been the purview of government agencies and James Bond films. I’ve had to provide my fingerprint to enter the US and other countries, and I am pretty accepting of that. But while trusting government agencies to safeguard my fingerprint data for the sake of national security is one thing, trusting a commercial technology corporation with it (through which I just want to buy the new Taylor Swift album) is quite another. My laptop has a fingerprint scanner, but I’ll never use it. In fact, I have put a strip of electrical tape over it.

Almost all of us have at some stage in our digital lives been affected by high profile security breaches of varying degrees which have required providers to ask us to reset our login passwords. Sure, if a password is compromised money could be stolen or data could be lost, but once my fingerprint or retina scan is out in the wild there is no getting it back. I can’t very well send a notification to my hand to reset my finger.

Not to mention, if you are working or eating and happen to have dirty hands the sensor may not accurately pick up your print, which may actually sometimes make unlocking the phone more annoying. And, call me crazy for saying this, but the rise in consumer devices using fingerprint security, and the potential of this technology being used to authorise mobile internet banking, could possibly lead to fingers being chopped off in muggings.

So, for the moment at least, I will avoid these features. Fortunately, using biometric security authentication on new devices is optional, and there are also ways to ensure that your irreplaceable identifiers are not “accidentally” recorded. As mentioned, putting a sliver of opaque tape over sensors is one way. A round Dora the Explorer sticker for the iPhone’s new home button, for example. And, if you want to be really careful, when using a friend’s smart device that has this feature you could always use your knuckle or press the home button through a shirt – just be prepared for possible unfriending.

Just a thought

Just a thought

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