Fingerprint Login on Smartphones: the New, Old Security

Fingerprint detail on male finger

Most of us think that fingerprint identification is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. The iPhone 6 and a number of other brands now boast state-of-the-art biometric fingerprint identification.

Fingerprint logins have existed in consumer electronics for more than a decade, but long before this, or police and investigative agencies even began using fingerprint dusting as a means of identifying individuals uniquely, many anthropologists now point to clear evidence that fingerprints were used to bind contracts and mark personal seals from dates dating back further than 245 BCE China as well as Ancient Babylon.

In 2004, IBM released the first mass-market laptop that included a fingerprint reader. Met with a milquetoast reaction and (despite predictions to the contrary at the time) a feature not included on many consumer electronic items to come, many wondered whether fingerprint identification had any place in the consumer security marketplace, or if consumers simply didn’t want it. As Apple reintroduced the idea in 2013 with the iPhone 5s’s “Touch ID” option, it was met with criticism.

Yet at the same time, DigitalTrends asked the prescient question: Why haven’t biometrics replaced passwords yet? Text passwords are a notoriously unreliable form of identification, and the easiest ways to make passwords more effective rely on making them less intuitive and easier to forget. Not only this, but security experts (although understandably) tell us to have a different password for every site we use. This was reasonable in 2005, but in 2015, we’re all beginning to suffer a little bit too much from information overload.

Perhaps this is why the push towards fingerprint login is finally hinting at becoming a standard, rather than a novelty. Hoping to ride the front end of this trend, Paypal has taken the leap a handful of other apps that rely on highly sensitive information, and made TouchID login an option to access your financial options.

Having become used to this standard as a frequent Paypal user, it now feels much less secure and antiquated when logging in to my regular mobile banking app only to have it require my decades old password and a security question one could hack merely by looking at a Facebook timeline. Rather than have her email actually “hacked” in any technically proficient sense, former American Vice Presidential nominee fell victim to this same sort of social engineering when an American teenager Googled the answer to her Yahoo email account’s security question. Biometric identification is idiot-proof, as some security analysts point out.

As many are quick to point out, the technology still isn’t perfect on a mass consumer scale—but it is vastly better than it was even just half a decade ago. Those having trouble making their thumbprint work on the new iPhone 6 are advised to rescan their thumb from multiple angles. The scanner can still work through even some of the more durable screen protectors, however you will want to delete and rescan your fingerprint profile after adding the transparent case or screen protector. 

August 19, 2015