Technology

iPhones and fingerprints: A password you can never, ever change

Patrick Stafford /

Let’s talk about fingerprints.

If you haven’t caught up with the latest Apple announcements, then here’s the deal: Apple has a new iPhone and it uses your fingerprint. You can use your print to unlock the phone and confirm purchases on the iTunes store, among some other uses.

It sounds cool, right? And hardly novel, fingerprint scanning technology has been around forever. Hell, I was using my prints to clock in at Woolworths back when I cleaned the bakery. But clearly, the bigger leap here is that biometrics technology is now a part of our everyday activities.

But whether or not fingerprint tech on smartphones is a good idea remains to be seen.

And I’m not just talking about the obvious – that Apple could eventually release this technology to a government agency. (The company says all the data is stored locally on the device, but given recent events I’m not sure that’s the biggest relief.)

From one perspective, this is a great move forward. A recent – and excellent – piece by Mat Honan over at Wired delves into why security technology is outdated, specifically in the area of passwords.

The general consensus of the experts quoted in the piece – and in general – is that passwords are becoming outdated and that biometrics will play a huge part in improving technology security standards.

By coupling a fingerprint with a password, for instance, the chances of having your security details compromised are much, much lower. There are two factors to break, not just one, and a fingerprint is extremely hard to find.

Except…

Consider the fact your fingerprint is now stored digitally in a phone, forever. Not only is that information just a liable as any other file on your phone, but once it’s gone – it’s gone forever. Once your fingerprint is hacked, there is absolutely no way for you to recover from that. If you ever use biometric security for anything ever again, you’re screwed.

And so we have a problem.

We love new technology, and having your fingerprint open your phone and approve your purchases sounds like something out of a science-fiction book. It’s seriously cool, and as previews of the iPhone 5S have already shown, “just works”.

But it sets us on a complicated path. The possibility for developers here is vast – but the security implications are frightening.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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