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Apple’s iPhone 5S could have a fingerprint scanner – and we want that why?

iphone fingerprint sensor confirmed scanner
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Check out our review of the Apple iPhone 5S smartphone.

Everybody loves a new iPhone. Either you love it because you’re excited about the device; or you love it because you’re secretly an Android fanboy that’s already had [INSERT RANDOM FEATURE] for years, and you can’t wait to gloat about it to all the suckers who just bought into the Cult of Cupertino. If rumors are true – and this time, they probably are – Apple haters will have a big example to add to the list: A fingerprint scanner.

Talk of an iPhone fingerprint scanner has been around since Apple placed a bid for mobile fingerprint recognition company AuthenTec last July. And last week, the U.S Patent Office published a patent assigned to Apple that pours more water onto the rumor mill. If that isn’t enough proof, what about this? London-based iOS app developer Hamza Sood revealed in a tweet on Monday that the latest developer build of iOS 7 (beta 4) contains language that explicitly mentions the futuristic tech. We have as much confirmation as we’re going to get until Tim Cook shows off the finger-scanning iPhone later this year.

Sood tells 9to5Mac that the snippet of code he scrounged up is what Apple’s vision impaired tool, VoiceOver, would read to a user. The telling sentences include, “Photo of a person holding an iPhone with their left hand while touching the Home button with their thumb,” and, “A fingerprint that changes colour during the setup process.” The string ends with the phrase “Recognition is complete.” 

Apple fingerprint scanner code
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Unless Apple is majorly screwing with everyone, the fingerprint scanner rumor has been confirmed.

The scanner will apparently be built into the Home button, or possibly the iPhone’s screen (based on the aforementioned patent). Apple watchers believe the technology will be used primarily for unlocking the phone. But it could be used for much more: secure NFC payments (the iPhone 5S is expected to finally get NFC), password replacement, or simply to differentiate between different users, allowing parents to easily cordon off profiles for their kids.

The fingerprint feature is apparently such a big deal that many expect it to be the iPhone 5S’s Siri – its killer selling point. And I’d be lying if I said I have no interest in trying out whatever Apple may have up its sleeve. In fact, I’d bet it’s awesome. But before we lather ourselves up with excitement over some biometric scanning, let’s put on our tin foil hats and take a moment to consider how this could all go wrong, from believable problems to batshit crazy nightmares. 

The first question security researchers will likely have is, how will Apple store users’ fingerprints? Ideally, the prints would be stored locally on the device rather than in the cloud. While it’s possible that hackers could snag this sensitive biometric data no matter what – iOS is secure, but everything is hackable  – such a dire outcome is less likely if it is never transferred over a network connection. However, if the fingerprint scanner is linked to NFC payments or external passwords, it’s entirely possible that a network connection will be necessary, at least for some key functions.

Add in the fact that people have been tricking fingerprint scanners for years with techniques so basic that you can only laugh at them, and the bolstered security the technology may provide seems less reassuring. For example, the Mythbusters were able to dupe a fingerprint scanner with only a photocopy of a fingerprint. And researchers in 2005 found that 90 percent of fingerprint scanners can be fooled with a Play-Doh imprint of a person’s finger. Here’s hoping that Apple and AuthenTec have worked out those kinks. 

The craziest, and worst, potential problem of them all: Thieves may start cutting off people’s fingers.

One assumes Apple’s engineers have already considered these problems. But there is always plenty of room for error when taking a complex new feature and putting it in the hands of millions of people. For this reason alone, I would wait until at least a few iterations of iOS 7 come out to fix whatever inevitable problems plague Apple’s nifty fingerprint system at launch. 

The second issue is usability. I fully realize that many laptops already pack fingerprint scanners. And Motorola introduced the technology into the smartphone space with its Atrix handset-laptop combo. But those who use fingerprint scanners on a daily basis will tell you how often they simply don’t work. And when was the last time you heard of someone using an Atrix? Exactly. Throw in the fact that we’ll be using the iPhone 5S on the go – while carrying coffee, eating buttery popcorn, or wearing gloves – and the fingerprint scanner might just turn into the least user-friendly part of the device. But there’s more.

As much as I hate to bring it up, it would be ignorant to not at least mention that Apple is one of the various companies that comply with the NSA’s PRISM data collection program. While it may be impossible for the spy agency to get its mitts on our fingerprints, the NSA would probably lust at the opportunity. (It isn’t building a $2 billion data center to store old Seinfeld reruns, you know.) Maybe you’re okay with that; maybe you’re not. Regardless, it’s something to consider before blindly uploading one of your key bits of personal information into a corporation’s computer system – especially one with legal obligations to the United States government.

And finally, the craziest, and worst, potential problem of them all: Thieves may start cutting off people’s fingers.

Yes, it sounds like I’ve lost my mind. But these things do happen. In Malaysia, for example. Cell phone theft is such a big problem that lawmakers have begun pleading with companies to make stealing smartphones a less profitable business. Would a fingerprint lock help? Perhaps – but it could also lead to having your freakin’ finger cut off.

Maybe finger chopping is an unlikely outcome. Considering all these possible pitfalls though, I remain firmly on the fence with this whole fingerprint scanning idea. I’ll keep my hands to myself, thank you.

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Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
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