The Privacy Implications Associated With The New iPhone Fingerprint ID Technology

By October 3, 2013in the news

The Privacy Implications Associated With The New iPhone Fingerprint ID Technology

Apple is known for its technological innovations. So when the company announced in September that it would be unveiling a new product line, techies were forgivably eager to find out what the future would look like. It turns out the future of the new iPhone lies in fingerprint ID technology.

Announcing the new phone, Apple’s senior president called it “the most forward thinking phone perhaps made by anyone.” The most notable feature attached to the new phones is the sensor known as the Touch ID. Located around the phone’s home button, the sensor allows people to unlock and activate their device without using a pin. For the millions of people that are inevitably going to buy the new iPhone, that is a welcomed convenience. It means you don’t have to worry about memorizing your password. As long as you have a decent finger with detectable whorls, the new fingerprint ensures that you have a convenient option.

The Privacy Angle

Being able to unlock your phone whenever you want is a welcomed feature. However, the new fingerprint technology opens a new debate into the important question of privacy. If the iPhone 5 functions by capturing, storing, and (presumably) uploading owner fingerprints, it suggests that the company will have access to a database containing millions of fingerprints from its users. Coming so soon after the recent revelations by Edward Snowden, that the U.S government monitors and spies on the mail and web traffic of its citizens, the possibility that these records could be subpoenaed and used is a lot more believable than it would have been years ago. For citizens, the prospect is also terrifying.

The privacy implications have drawn so much concern that U.S Senator Al Franken sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook asking for clarification on the sensitive issue. In the published letter, Franken asked the company to explain the way the technology works, and also asked Cook to explain the way the ID sensor would be used in the future.

Franken’s concerns weren’t just limited to the iPhone 5 fingerprint sensor, but also to how the technology would be adapted by other companies in the future. Franken observed that the fingerprint technology would definitely “pave the way for its peers and smaller competitors to adopt biometric technology, with varying protections of privacy.”

Apple’s response was quick. Addressing the concerns raised by Franken, the company published an online document that explained the way fingerprints are obtained, and (more importantly) what is done with them once captured. According to the documents, fingerprints are kept secure from the iOS operating system. This prevents them from being accessed by developers and the company. The Apple document also reveals that the iPhone does not save digital images of a fingerprint. Instead, fingerprints are stored as mathematical sequences, which are then interpreted by the A7 chip. The logic being that even if hackers did find a work around, there would be no visual data to work with.

Does It Belong To You or Apple?

At the heart of the public concern is the question of ownership. Do the collected fingerprints belong to the owners, or does Apple consider the data to fall within customer or subscriber records, contents of communication, or subscriber identity, as outlined within the Stored Communications Act? The latter would mean that Apple would be obligated to hand over the information to the government if subpoenaed to do so.

Cracking the iPhone

Apple’s claim that the iPhone offers the latest and best in modern phone security is already being tested. Only a week after the iPhone 5S was released, hackers announced that they had figured out a way of unlocking the phone using a fingerprint hack. Click here to see how the hackers did it.

As many have probably already imagined, a hacker who successfully cracks your iPhone using your fingerprint could leave you vulnerable to a wide range of risks. It could be used to impersonate you. And if fingerprinting becomes a mainstream security option, the potential for misuse would be incalculable.

As Franken starkly put it “….if hackers get a hold of your thumbprint, they could use it to identify and impersonate you for the rest of your life.”

The Bottom Line

Apple’s iPhone fingerprinting technology is not an absolute feature. As an Apple spokesperson pointed out, like Siri, users have the option of disabling the fingerprinting feature. If you’re concerned about the privacy implication of using the iPhone’s new fingerprinting technology, you could always resort to the traditional password options Apple makes available to all users.