BIOMETRIC TECHNOLOGY

A NEW ERA FOR iGADGETS

Well, it had certainly been rumored. It was back in January that analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, an individual with a decent record of correctly guessing Apple’s next moves, authored a report in which he predicted a slew of features in an iPhone 5S to be launched this year. Those features included an A7 chip, as well as an enhanced camera with an f2.0 aperture and smart LED flash. But most intriguingly for many observers, they also included a fingerprint sensor.

When Kuo re-affirmed his prediction of such a sensor sitting beneath the iPhone 5S’s home button in March, more of us got used to the idea that it really was going to happen, imagining that such a sensor would be used for unlocking the device, serving as a password replacement mechanism.

That feature has now been confirmed, with the discovery in iOS 7 beta 4 of a new folder by the name of «BiometricKitUI». A source familiar with the new iPhone’s development has reportedly described the user-interface for the fingerprint scanning system as complete. This person has also said that the focus of the technology is on unlocking the handset, which backs up one rumor, but not another one of it being built for a payment system.

It has also been suggested in the past that there will be biometric-related hardware/ software features in the iWatch, although of course, this is another device that remains unconfirmed. What the news certainly is, though, is another victory for Apple innovation. Or is it? After all, this is technology that has been around for a while, and that’s before you consider the wide range of alternative technologies that have long existed for the purposes of mobile device security.

A QUICK HISTORY OF BIOMETRIC AUTHENTICATION

Of course, biometrics have been around for pretty much as long as human beings, with 31,000-year-old caves featuring prehistoric pictures seemingly signed bythe artists using fingerprints. It took until 1870 for the first real biometric system to be created by French anthropologist Alphonse Bertillion, who assisted in the transformation of biometrics into a meaningful field of study.

But even in your own lifetime, and relatively recently at that, you may have encountered biometric authentication on a handheld device. For example, when HP introduced its new flagship Pocket PC, the iPAQ 5450, in December 2002, many were intrigued by its incorporation of a biometric finger scanner. The principles of this feature were very similar to those that Apple fans are presently reading about in the rumors. It was a thermal reader capable of storing images of several fingers for security purposes. Owners of the iPAD simply needed to swipe the device with one of their fingers to unlock it.

Given that the 5450 was the first PDA to have biometric security built in, it was through this device that many users became familiar with its principles for the first time. They learned that biometrics involved the measuring or scanning of a unique part of the body, such as fingerprints or a retina, producing an image that was subsequently used to identify the user. The benefits were irresistible: passwords may be forgotten from time to time, but fingerprints should remain the same for life -so the theory went.

For the corporate types to whom the 5450 was marketed, the advantages were even more obvious. The security of data on company PDAs had long been a major headache for IT decision makers, and with PDAs being so easily lost or left behind in public places, there surely had to be a better way of assuring this than the use of passwords. Fingerprint technology that works causes no delay, meaning a fine combination of high security and low hassle.

FROM NOTEBOOKS TO NETBOOKS… THE CONTINUING SPREAD OF BIOMETRIC SCANNING

For much the same reasons as earlier anguish over PDAs, security managers have long been concerned about netbooks and their tendency to end up seemingly anywhere with all of the highly confidential and sensitive data that they can hold. It should hardly surprise, then, that biometric scanning soon took hold in these devices with notebooks like the Toshiba Portege M400, Lenovo ThinkPad T61, Fujitsu LifeBookT4220 and HP Compaq 8710p all incorporating it in one form or another by the late 2000s.

But at this point, it remained the newest and possibly least understood of all tools designed to ensure a notebook’s data security, and although its convenience was already recognized, so too were its limitations. It quickly became clear that there was a definite balance to be struck between productivity and protection, and the wise money was still on a three-part approach to security comprising of what the user knew. This included their password, what they had (such as a smart card), and who they were (such as their physical identification). This element was catered by the notebook’s fingerprint reader. Depending on the required level of security, IT managers would routinely demand the use of one, two or all three.

The arrival of integrated biometric fingerprint scanners on netbooks, meanwhile, was seemingly heralded by the announcement by UPEK of its TouchStrip TCS5 Fingerprint Sensor. In smartphones, biometrics are in their comparative infancy, but even in these devices, they are not unheard of. Mobbeel, for example, specializes in a broad range of biometric security solutions for iOS and Android devices, encompassing voice, face, iris, signature and hand geometry recognition. The MobbKey software, for example, enables any door to be unlocked by transforming a smartphone into a secure remote access system, doing away with the need for keys.

One company that previously provided a range of manufacturers with fingerprint sensors suitable for use in a smartphone was AuthenTec. Such firms included Samsung, Dell, Lenovo, Fujitsu and HP. Until AuthenTec announced that it would cease to sell fingerprint technology to competitors of Apple following its purchase by the Cupertino firm for around $356 million last year. The acquisition gives Apple access to many of the foundational patents relating to fingerprint biometrics together with a broad portfolio of 200 patents issued and filed in the United States.

It’s clear, then, why speculation over the incorporation of biometric fingerprint scanning into the next iPhone has become so feverish — which also raises the prospect of its appearance in the iPad, expanding its reach into the tablet market.

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT FINGERPRINTS…

Now seems to be a good time to point out that biometrics don’tjust concern fingerprints, as useful as they undoubtedly are for such an application given the minutiae manifesting as ridges and valleys on the human finger surface. Other types of biometrics exist — some of which may have already seen life on a smartphone or handheld device near you. Biometrics can also use the eyes, for example, with both iris and retina ocular recognition technologies thriving.

Another form of visual biometrics is facial recognition, whereby it is facial features or patterns that are analyzed so that an individual’s identity can be recognized or authenticated. In most face recognition systems, either eigenfaces or local feature analysis is used. Hand geometry recognition, meanwhile, spans both visual and spatial biometrics, making use of such geometric features of the hand as finger lengths and hand widths in the identification of an individual.

Some types of biometrics that have emerged over the years are much more the stuff of sci-fi movies, such as behavioral biometrics determining an individual’s identity through their walking style or gait, as well as olfactory biometrics that determine identity on the basis of odor.

Which of these technologies could find their way onto a future version of your favorite iDevice? It was only in September 2012 that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application by Apple for a system using automatic facial analysis to both lock and unlock an iDevice. There have even been suggestions in the past that retinal patterns could be recognized by such a system.

THE EVOLUTION OF BIOMETRICS ELSEWHERE

To say that gun safety and control are contentious issues in the United States would be just a slight understatement. Nonetheless, investigations have continued apace into technologies that can assist — with Vice President Joe Biden having expressed an interest in technology that prevents the shooting of firearms by anyone who is not the purchaser of the gun. Such a solution would be reminiscent of the gun given to James Bond in his latest outing, Skyfall, which was coded to his palm print, enabling it to be fired solely by him.

There isn’t a huge number of similar systems available at the moment. Those that do exist include TriggerSmart, which childproofs guns using radio-frequency identification (RFID), while work is also being done in Russia on an electronic chip that can be programmed with the biometric data of the owner to ensure that the weapon doesn’t fire when in the hands of an unauthorized user.

However, questions remain as to whether such technology truly makes guns safer, with the gun control group, the Violence Policy Center, claiming that the mere feeling of safety will make gun ownership more widespread.»

This is all before one considers the potential for the hacking of such a system, which can be done by fooling the device itself, bypassing the input device to fool the biometric system or directly compromising the database.

The speed of authentication will also be critical in determining whether biometric technology in smartphones simply becomes another inconvenience, akin to the all-too-easily forgotten password. Thankfully, the most recently available technology has shaved speeds to microseconds from what was once milliseconds.

ARE BIOMETRICS IN YOUR NEXT iPHONE A ‘TRUE POSSIBILITY?’

Ultimately, then, there needs to be confidence that biometrics technology has sufficiently matured to be a feasible option in the world of gadgets. For all of its limitations, when combined with the conventional written password, some form of biometric technology suddenly seems a much more realistic ‘next big thing.’

With rumors remaining strong of not only patent-collector Apple, but also Samsung intending to embrace the technology on their next round of smartphones and tablets, it really does look like a question of ‘when,’rather than ‘if,’ for those who can’t wait to start using their fingerprint to unlock their phone and take advantage of potential further applications.

Might you one day even use your thumbprint impression to buy a new Apple device in a world in which such biometric identifiers ; have completely superseded Apple ID passwords? That’s certainly the prediction of the Biometric Research Group — but we’ll all simply have to wait to find out.

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