Sen. Al Franken letter grills Apple’s Tim Cook over Touch ID fingerprint sensor

iPhone 5s Touch ID confirmation

Apple says your fingerprint data stored on your new iPhone 5S is encrypted and secure. But Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) just wants to double check.

In a letter sent to Apple on Thursday, Franken asks Apple CEO Tim Cook all the important questions about the company’s fancy new fingerprint sensor, which is embedded in the Home button of the iPhone 5S. Can third parties use Touch ID data to recreate a user’s fingerprints? Will third-party app developers have access to fingerprint data? Can the FBI make someone unlock their phone? And so on.

If Cook responds to these questions in full – and he should – we will no longer have any lingering doubts and about the safety, security, and privacy issues that surround the sensor known as Touch ID.

“Passwords are secret and dynamic; fingerprints are public and permanent,” wrote Sen. Franken. “If you don’t tell anyone your password, no one will know what it is. If someone hacks your password, you can change it – as many times as you want. You can’t change your fingerprints. You have only 10 of them. And you leave them on everything you touch; they are definitely not a secret. What’s more, a password doesn’t uniquely identify its owner – a fingerprint does. Let me put it this way: if hackers get a hold of your thumbprint, they could use it to identify and impersonate you for the rest of your life.”

In addition to addressing concerns about “hackers,” Franken delves into very specific questions about the ways in which law enforcement, including the FBI, can use our fingerprints, and the Touch ID unlocking mechanism against us.

For example, U.S. law allows FBI agents to force a person to turn over “tangible things” through the use of a court order. “Tangible,” in this case, means physical or digital items that you can see or touch. What the FBI cannot do, thanks to the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination, is make someone reveal something they KNOW. This is an crucial distinction, as it relates to Touch ID. An FBI agent could not demand that you unlock your iPhone, if you’ve locked it with the 4-digit pin (which is still an option, BTW). But what about the fingerprint lock? A fingerprint is, after all, something you can see, and is not knowledge in the same way a 4-digit pin is – a point Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Marcia Hoffmann recently drilled home at Wired.

While this will surely be an issue for the courts to decide eventually, Franken wants to get Apple’s take on the record, asking, “Does Apple consider fingerprint data to be ‘tangible things’ as defined in the USA Patriot Act?”

Franken even goes so far as to ask, “Does Apple believe that users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in fingerprint data they provide to Touch ID?” That term “reasonable expectation of privacy” is key – a legal phrase that defines what types of data or information law enforcement may access without search warrant under the Fourth Amendment. If there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, there is no search.

We’ll be waiting to see how Cook (i.e. Apple’s lawyers) answer these questions, which every Apple iPhone 5S customer deserves to know. However, for now, we’re not going to let ourselves get worked up. Apple has put a lot of effort into making our fingerprints safe. And besides, if the FBI wants our prints, they can get ’em – we leave them everywhere we go.

Read Franken’s full letter here.

Mobile

The new iPad Pro is now available in stores -- here's where to get it

Apple has introduced its new lineup of iPad Pro models. If you're wondering how to get your hands on one, we have you covered. Here's everything you need to know about pricing and availability for the new iPad Pro models.
Computing

Common Chrome OS problems, and how to fix them

Is something irking you about Chrome OS? Find your problem on our list of bugs, issues, and general complaints about the OS, along with easy solutions to any issues that might arise.
Music

A wealth of rich tunes: Cash in with the best songs about money

There may not be as many songs about money as there are songs about love, but it's a close second. If you're looking for a skrilla-inspired playlist, check out our picks for the best songs about money.
Home Theater

Need more contrast in your life? Here’s what you need to know about HDR TVs

So what is HDR TV? In a nutshell, it’s the best thing to happen to TV since the arrival of 4K. Here's everything you need to know about the technology, what it can do, and why it’s a must-have.
Mobile

Apple will fix these iPhone X, 13-inch MacBook Pro issues for free

Apple launched free repair programs for the iPhone X and 13-inch MacBook Pro with no Touch Bar. Some iPhone X units are suffering from unresponsive touchscreens, while a specific batch of the 13-inch MacBook Pro is prone to drive failure.
Mobile

Which smartphone has the best camera? We found the sharpest shooters

They say that the best camera is always the one you have with you and that makes your smartphone camera very important indeed. Join us for a closer look at the best camera phones available right now.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: 1-handed drone control, a pot that stirs itself

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Mobile

Google honors Veterans Day by highlighting military service stories

For Veterans Day, Google is honoring the heroes that served the country with a new Google Doodle that highlights the stories of five veterans from the five different branches of the military.
Deals

Make some time for the best smartwatch deals for November 2018

Smartwatches make your life easier by sending alerts right on your wrist. Many also provide fitness-tracking features. So if you're ready to take the plunge into wearables and want to save money, read on for the best smartwatch deals.
Deals

Bigger than Black Friday: Don’t miss the best Single’s Day deals

Thanks to AliExpress, Single's Day – the world's largest retail day – is no longer a foreign affair. If you're ready to do some early holiday shopping or want to score some discounts ahead of Black Friday, we've rounded up some of the…
Mobile

Our favorite ebook reader is not a Kindle. Here are all the best options

If you're a bookworm, an ebook reader can be an important part of your life, one that allows you to read your books whenever and wherever you like. But which should you get? Here are five of the best ebook readers available.
Mobile

Samsung W2019 unveiled: High-end flip phone comes with flagship specs

The Samsung W2019 is a high-end flip phone that comes with flagship specifications such as 6GB of RAM and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845. The device features a pair of S-AMOLED displays, a dual rear camera setup, and an eye-popping price tag.
Mobile

Google, Samsung, OnePlus, and Huawei face off in an Android battle royale

The good news is that there are some great options in the Android smartphone market right now. The bad news is that too much choice makes it tough to decide. We compare the Pixel 3 XL, the Galaxy Note 9, the OnePlus 6T, and the Mate 20 Pro.
Product Review

It's so fast it has a clip-on fan. But the Asus ROG phone isn't just for gamers

Is a gaming smartphone only something a mobile gamer should consider buying? In the case of the Asus ROG Phone, the good news is the device is so capable, and a genuinely impressive all-rounder, that everyone should take a closer look…