Sep, 12 2013

On Tuesday, Apple announced the iPhone 5S (and iPhone 5C), giving us a look at one of the more significant “S” upgrades we’ve seen from them. A faster processor, new camera tech, a revamped version of iOS 7 — it’s all there. One other interesting thing they included was a fingerprint scanner that is actually embedded into the iconic Home button.

Dubbed the “Touch ID” scanner, this thing introduces a new element of security for Apple users. It gives them the ability to do things like use it as an alternate unlocking mechanism to gain access to the entire phone or authorize App Store purchases, all with the swipe of a finger.

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But did you know that the iPhone 5S wasn’t the first mobile device with a fingerprint scanner? Nope! That honor belongs to the HP iPaq PPC 5500, a PocketPC device from 2003. For a more modern device, look no further than the Motorola ATRIX 4G, a 2011 Android phone that was pretty exciting for its time. Unfortunately, fingerprint scanners in phones never quite took off (as evidenced by the lack of new phones with fingerprint scanners embedded).

So why not? It’s interesting enough for Apple — a company who still hasn’t even adopted the likes of NFC — so why hasn’t anyone else stepped up to the plate since then? Let’s explore it a bit, but first we’ll have to revisit the Motorola ATRIX 4G and figure out where things went wrong.

Motorola ATRIX 4G Fingerprint Scanner

The Motorola ATRIX 4G’s fingerprint scanner was used for unlocking your device. That’s it. It was an easy way to bypass the pin lock (which would be setup if you opted to use a fingerprint unlock in the first place). Its location on the back/top of the device was a natural home for it considering how most folks tend to hold their phones. With that, the scanner essentially had just one function.

Why it failed to catch on

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It failed to catch on because Motorola decided not to do more with it. That’s what’s so interesting about Apple’s announcement on Tuesday — they made us see how this technology could be used in new, more abstract ways to make it more useful to the common consumer. We always wonder why Apple gets a lot of credit for doing things when they weren’t, in fact, the first to do them.

The fact of the matter is that Apple often does a lot of things “right” first. For instance, as someone who doesn’t store sensitive files on his phone I personally didn’t really need a fingerprint scanner to protect the entirety of my device. As such, it became a novelty on the Atrix 4G — little more than a cool parlor trick to show friends and get them to “ooh” and “ahh” at the wonders of advanced tech.

However, I did like the idea of being able to protect certain functions such as downloading apps or encrypting pictures. This fine-tuned functionality is not something that Motorola did. Why? We’re not sure.

Perhaps it was just a technical limitation of having to work with a third-party operating system like Android at the time. Sure, Motorola could implement fingerprint encryption at a system-wide level, but they couldn’t add that to the (then) Android Market app themselves, nor could they add functionality for the hundreds of thousands of apps sitting in there.

Apple doesn’t have that problem, of course, because they create both the software and all the hardware for their own ecosystem. Google could have whipped up some “fingerprint scanner APIs” for Android, sure, but there really wasn’t a point with only one phone with the technology on the market.

Mind you, this is only one man’s take. I’m sure there were tons of other Atrix 4G owners who valued the fingerprint scanner a lot more. A whole boatload of folks were gushing about it back then in the Atrix 4G section at AndroidForums.com. But for those like me, it was no less trouble than drawing a simple pattern or inputting a four digit unlock code using the touch screen, and it ultimately just got in the way.

Privacy concerns

Things aren’t all peachy with Apple right now, though. The Cupertino company introduced more than just interesting new uses for the scanner. This wasn’t an overblown issue back when the Atrix 4G first launched, but some folks are being resistant to fingerprint scanners for an entirely different reason now than they were for the Atrix 4G — privacy.

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With all of the noise that has been made about FISA orders for subscriber information and with companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft and all the carriers being asked to fork over data about large amounts of people, some are skeptical about the whole thing. Just imagine the NSA trying to nudge Apple to give up the goods:

“Put your finger here so we can have a legit way to identify you should we need to spy on you!”

It’s scary stuff, even if Apple does assure us that encryption keys for fingerprint images are only being stored within the device at the hardware level, and not on any remote server. While we don’t want to believe that Apple would ever stoop so low (they’re not that evil, guys), some people are bound to have doubts in the back of their mind when they’re deciding whether or not to use the fingerprint scanner.

Past events have shown us that the government has the power to obtain consumer data from these companies, though we’re not sure they would have the legal right to force someone like Apple to store encryption keys on a remote server just so they can have them forked over anytime they want. That said, the government has definitely shown it has a tendency to “persuade” these big information companies to provide backdoor access to certain pieces of information about consumers under the guise of national security.

That much was made apparent with all the information leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who made the world privy to government data collection programs such as PRISM, Tempora, and an exhaustive NSA calls database. With that, you have to wonder whether Apple is telling the truth — who’s to say they’re not lying in order to protect some sort of confidentiality clause they must legally adhere to?

So many details about the situation are being kept from us that even Google and Microsoft have said enough is enough. The two companies — who are pretty much mortal enemies in the tech space — have gone as far as banding together to sue the NSA for the right to share more information about FISA, as well as various other programs in place the government uses to request records about consumers.

back-door[We] believe it is vital to publish information that clearly shows the number of national security demands for user content, such as the text of an email.  These figures should be published in a form that is distinct from the number of demands that capture only metadata such as the subscriber information associated with a particular email address.

Indeed, with consumers starting to wonder how far is too far when it comes to the balance of violating basic civil liberties vs doing what it takes to ensure national security, companies want to tread carefully. Marissa Mayer, the former Google exec enjoying her new post as CEO of Yahoo, spoke about the issue at TechCrunch disrupt.

She revealed that companies are often strong-armed into complying with these requests following the result of a lawsuit against a new clause or bill that they don’t agree with. Should they lose the lawsuit, they have two choices — comply, or be charged with treason.

Ouch.  The bigger question becomes a lot more important — can the government force Apple to implement a way to collect data about the fingerprint information that is captured whenever iPhone 5S users set the mechanism up? It’s something we can’t answer ourselves, so we’ve reached out to our legal friend Jay Klimek to see if we can get a clear answer.

And therein lies the most damning “quality” of the fingerprint scanner. It’ll add some useful features, but to what extent? At what cost? How does a company tread the line between usability/features and government pressure? One wrong move, one big expose, or one big whistleblower can move the needle of public perception so much that only the biggest companies can survive the inevitable lashing that would soon follow.

The CarrierIQ Debacle

It all reminds us of the CarrierIQ debacle of 2011. If you don’t remember, CarrierIQ is the company which many OEMs and carriers were using to collect various pieces of information about everything you do with your phone.

From keystrokes to information about who you’re calling and where you’re going, CarrierIQ was hoarding an alarming amount of sensitive information for no good reason. This was going on for years, apparently, and we didn’t know anything about it until crafty developers stumbled upon it in their daily tinkering sessions. Aside from the fact that Apple’s OS is completely closed-source, who’s to say the same can’t happen in regards to this fingerprint scanner?

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The company claimed they were only using the data to help carriers and OEMs improve their products, though their unwillingness to release any details about what they did with the data prompted much scrutiny. In fact, they were in such hot water that federal investigations were launched to make sure they weren’t mishandling the data or doing anything they were supposed to be doing.

Carriers and OEMs quickly worked to make sure their phones and tablets were devoid of any traces of CarrierIQ, with the short-term bad press brought about by that episode being enough to make any CEO begin to sweat. With that, it would seem we could trust Apple and any other manufacturer to do everything they can to stay on the right path and side with the basic civil rights of the citizens of the world. Unfortunately for us, it may not be completely up to them.

The difference here is that CarrierIQ did almost nothing to help consumers directly. Sure, folks might have benefited from a better network and better technology in the long run, but to the average consumer it was little more than an annoying, unsightly wart on a thumb.

Apple might be in the clear if they truly did make the decision to keep encryption keys for fingerprint data at the local hardware level from the get-go, but there’s no telling what sort of governmental loopholes exist to get around that (nor can we determine whether they’re telling the truth at all). With more and more folks aware of the government’s questionable homeland intelligence collection tactics as of late, it will be interesting to see if Apple’s fingerprint scanner will be welcomed by the public with open arms.

The Future of Fingerprint Tech

So where do we go from here? If Apple truly does “inspire” others and change the game up, will we see a redux of fingerprint scanners in Android phones? Will OEMs look to emulate any success Apple might have with the iPhone 5S’ implementation?

It’s tough to say. Again, Android and iOS are two completely different styles of mobile ecosystems. Apple’s “there’s no one but us” approach allows them to be far more flexible with the technology they decide to use in their iPhones and iPads than third-party OEMs can with Android. Personally speaking, I honestly wouldn’t want to see fingerprint scanners make a return unless Google gives everyone the tools they need to do it right.

Future

That said, there are areas where Android could greatly benefit from an increased amount of phones with fingerprint scanners. Fingerprint-based encryption is a popular one among IT departments in enterprise, for instance. These are the same departments who feel a 4-digit PIN code or a pattern unlock is way too simple for serious security. An increase in the amount of modern Android phones with fingerprint scanners would add yet another element of security that could help those IT guys sleep at night. This could apply to folks who work for the always-paranoid government, as well.

Am I saying Apple will succeed? Am I saying they will lead yet another movement in contemporary tech? No, not at all. Even Apple faces an interesting hill to climb, with obstacles of privacy, security, and consumer acceptance to overcome. How they ascend that hill will most likely determine how the rest of the industry looks at the fingerprint scanner moving forward.

Let us know how you feel — would you want to see fingerprint scanners make a return to Android phones? What would be your most wanted use for them? If not, why? We want to hear it all, so be sure to spill your emotion to us in the comments section below. There’s also a poll sitting below, so drop a vote so we can see just how many of you are on either side of the issue!

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