The new iPhone's fingerprint sensor could make passwords irrelevant

The Week

Apple didn't invent the digital music player. Ditto the smartphone and the tablet.

But all three of those markets exploded after Apple released the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

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Now experts are wondering if the Cupertino, Calif., company can work the same magic with another technology that has been around for awhile: Biometrics, which allows devices to identify people by their faces, irises, or fingerprints.

On Tuesday, Apple unveiled the iPhone 5S. Its signature feature? A fingerprint sensor it's calling Touch ID.

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Instead of fumbling to enter a four-digit pin, the idea is to simply place your finger on the new sapphire crystal home button, which covers a 170-micron thin sensor that lets you unlock your phone or make iTunes purchases.

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This isn't new technology. The Motorola Atrix had a fingerprint sensor back in 2011, but the feature was pulled after customers reportedly complained that it didn't always work. As CNN's Jose Pagillery points out, "Biometrics haven't yet gone mainstream, because earlier attempts have been too expensive, too difficult to use, or featured on products that few people bought."

But, as with the tablet, Apple is betting that its sensor will catch on, even as others have failed. "It's classic Apple to expend tremendous energy on simplifying a small irritation," writes CNET's Zack Whittaker.

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Considering that Apple sold 5 million units of the iPhone 5 in the device's opening weekend alone, the technology is almost guaranteed to be widely used by default.

The stock market is certainly betting that users will like it. After Apple bought biometrics company AuthenTec for $356 million in 2012, shares of a similar European company, Precise Biometrics, doubled.

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That is a sign that companies like Google, Samsung, and Microsoft could follow Apple's example and start using fingerprint sensors in their own phones, writes The Verge's Casey Newton.

"The era of one-tap authentication is about to begin," he speculates. "Touch ID has already raised hopes that it can replace, or at least complement, the humble password."

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Michelle Warren, president of Toronto-based tech analysis firm MW Research & Consulting, agrees, telling the CBC that Apple's sensor is a "huge leap forward for biometrics in the consumer market."

Once smartphone users get used to scanning their fingerprints, the technology could be used for secure financial transactions for "everything from making an ATM withdrawal to providing a signature substitute when using a credit card," Al Pascual, an analyst at research firm Javelin Security, tells Wired.

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Not that the technology is fool-proof. Tests have shown that Touch ID has trouble recognizing sweat-covered fingers, as well as fingers with scars — although, with the ability to recognize multiple fingers, that shouldn't be much of a problem for the iPhone 5S.

There is also the concern about theft. Fingerprints, unlike passwords, can't be reset. While the iPhone 5S stores fingerprints locally, identity theft could be a big problem if companies eventually store them in the cloud.

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Fingerprint sensors have also been hacked before. Older, more rudimentary versions were able to be fooled by photocopies. A decade ago, researchers were able to bypass them using the same gelatin that makes up Gummi bears.

Whether the technology is widely adopted could depend on whether iPhone users praise it or start sharing horror stories about hacked phones.

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"If this has been implemented right," Song Chuang, research director at Gartner, tells Reuters, "every enterprise that enforces a password or PIN lock on the device will begin using the fingerprint sensor instead."

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