A decade ago, Bloomberg LP, the financial-information giant, introduced a new feature on its flagship terminals and put itself at the forefront of an emerging tech trend all at once. The feature, a biometric scanner, required users to swipe a finger across a small unit parked next to their keyboard in order to log in. The feature was designed mostly to crack down on unauthorized terminal-sharing among Bloomberg’s Wall Street clients, but it had the added effect of making everyone’s information a lot safer. And today most Bloomberg users carry around the “B-unit,” a biometric scanner card that lets them log in to their home screens.
In the intervening years, a handful of device-makers have tried to make fingerprint authentication happen for people who aren’t shuffling around millions of dollars every day. And they’ve been greeted with a unified meh. Ordinary users, it seems, would rather type in a passcode than fiddle with a fingerprint scanner, even if it means their information is more easily accessed by people who aren’t them.
Apple, we learned today, is trying to change that. Its new high-end iPhone, the 5S, will come equipped with a so-called Touch ID feature, which will allow users to scan their thumbs over a capacitive sensor located inside the home button rather than swiping or typing in a passcode. (The phones will also come in silver, gold, and space gray and will have a faster 64-bit processor and better graphics than previous models. There is also a new low-end iPhone, the 5C, which has a plastic case and will start at $99.)
The fingerprint feature is meant to deter theft and avoid potentially dangerous phone losses, but it will also give app developers something to play with if Apple ever decides to open it up to other apps. (At present, the feature can’t access any software other than the basic unlocking function.)
Apple purchased a biometrics company called AuthenTec last year, and rumors have flown ever since that it was going to make its own version of a fingerprint scanner. As The Wall Street Journal notes, finger-scanning technology has improved vastly since Bloomberg first introduced its scanners, but it still has some minor drawbacks, like the possibility of being hacked, Mission Impossible style, or having the iPhone not register a fingerprint after an injury or a particularly sweaty run.
And there’s the whole issue of user privacy. Apple says it won’t collect fingerprint scans in a centralized cloud database and that they’ll remain encrypted on the individual devices, but that likely won’t be enough to please NSA-phobes. (Brian Fung notes some of the legal and security implications of widespread fingerprint collection here.)
Security and surveillance issues aside, fingerprint-scanning technology seems like one of those gadget inevitabilities — like wireless charging — that will just happen, somehow. But unlike other advancements, biometric scanners have been around for a while. So, why haven’t they taken off?
Biometrics expert Geppy Parziale has an intriguing possible answer. Parziale explains that there are two types of touch-based fingerprint scanners — optical scanners, which capture images of the finger through a process called total internal reflection, and Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) scanners, the type found in the iPhone 5S.
CMOS scanners, Parziale explains, wear out over time and can scan only a limited number of fingers before they begin making mistakes. Every time you drop your phone, smudge it with finger grease, or touch it with a dirty thumb, you’re decaying the surface of the scanner. “Unfortunately there is no existing solution to this,” he writes. “Manufacturers can only try to make the fingerprint sensor last longer, but sooner or later that device will stop working properly.”
Perhaps Apple has figured out the solution to the fingerprint-scanning problem, and iPhone users will be blessed with perfectly functioning, indestructible Touch ID sensors. And perhaps it was only a matter of time before Apple took a promising-but-buggy product like the fingerprint scanner, fixed its flaws, placed it in all of its devices, and brute-forced it into the mainstream.
But the real test of Touch ID will come in a few months, when users have either gotten used to the idea of having their fingerprints scanned for verification or gotten annoyed with decay-related mistakes and gone back to their passcodes. If the latter happens, then what Apple announced today wasn’t so much a new frontier in mobile authentication as a slightly flashier meh.