Apple May Take Fingerprint Security Mainstream

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Apple's ( AAPL) new Touch ID technology may be the answer for consumers everywhere who have a tough time remembering passwords -- or whose fat fingers find tiny virtual keyboards annoying. For the security industry, this could be what finally boosts biometric technology to a mainstream audience.

"To me, I see this as an example of another opportunity for them to take a technology from high-end applications and bring it to consumers," said Philip Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software, which develops security software for businesses and governments. "It's the first time I've ever seen this level of technology in a consumer product."

Apple's knack for integrating new -- and expensive -- technologies into its products and creating mass appeal appears to be on the verge again. The sliver-thin MacBook Air's, high-resolution Retina displays and, of course, iPads, for example, are now part of our vernacular. And while the company wasn't always the first, Apple used its influence and buying power to expand the audience greatly.

Apple also has a reputation to protect, Lieberman added.

"Apple has gotten beat up because people have chosen poor passwords for their Apple mail service," he said. "By having a biometric device as opposed to a password chosen by the user, it's the better way to go, especially for consumers. You don't choose a fingerprint."

Biometric fingerprint readers expanded beyond science fiction and began showing up in retail stores more than 10 years ago. Some PC makers built fingerprint readers into laptops. Other companies made consumer gadgets that were more gimmicky than reliable. The technology didn't always work.

Low-resolution scanners and cheap sensors resulted in limited mass appeal. Consumers weren't willing to pay for the higher quality hardware. Today, fingerprint scanners are relegated to a handful of business laptops or large companies willing to invest in high-end equipment.

Apple's Touch ID, one of the most buzzed-about features in the new iPhone 5S, spares little expense and offers high-quality hardware with minimal fuss. After the initial set up, iPhone owners need only to touch the home button to unlock the phone or make a purchase on iTunes or the App Store.

Even competitors, like Bio-key, which makes fingerprint readers for mobile devices, are excited.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, Jay Meier, Bio-key's vice president of corporate development, said, "This is a momentous occasion for the biometrics industry. ...The iPhone 5S is the first broadly distributed mobile device to include a biometric sensor that really is emerging into the consumer's field of view, if you will. This is the day we've been waiting for."

Adding fingerprint security to an iPhone wasn't unexpected. Last year, Apple paid $356 million to acquire AuthenTec, which held several fingerprint-related patents and had access to high-quality hardware.

The result is a mix of hardware and software built behind the iPhone's home button, according to Apple. The exterior home button is a laser-cut sapphire crystal that protects the sensor below. The capacitive touch sensor underneath takes a high-resolution 500 dpi image of a fingerprint, which is analyzed for a match. (Cheaper fingerprint scanners have resolution around 100 to 175 dpi, while the better, commercial scanners tout resolutions of 300 to 1,000 dpi, Lieberman said.)

The new iPhone also uses sub-thermal scanning to view even more details beyond just the outer print. (Watch Apple's video of Touch ID at apple.com/iphone-5s/videos/#video-touch.)

The fingerprint is stored on a secure chip inside the phone and not online, allaying concerns of privacy-rights groups. There is no iPhone user fingerprint database dangling in the iCloud.

But there are still unknowns about biometric-fingerprint security, said Stina Ehrensvard, CEO of Yubico, a provider of hardware security technology.

"It will be interesting to see how robust the iPhone fingerprint sensor will be as there are many (of us) who have gone through customs and have experienced problems with reading our fingerprints," Ehrensvard said. "However, independent if a device is unlocked with a fingerprint or not, the concept of having a security chip in a smartphone or other hardware device to securely authenticate over the Internet is a trend supported by several IT giants."

Yubico is part of the FIDO Alliance, which stands for Fast IDentity Online. The organization is working with several technology companies on new open standards enabling easier and more secure ways to login to online services. Apple is not a member.

Yubico's own technology, the YubiKey, is a USB security key that works with computers and mobile devices supporting Near Field Communication. It authenticates with a built-in security chip, a password and a physical touch. The user enters a PIN or password and then touches the device for instant access to an online service.

Google ( GOOG) is using the technology for its own staff and has, together with Yubico, created Universal 2nd Factor (U2F). This is one of the FIDO standards that in the future can enable users to login with one single security key, such as the YubiKey, to any number of services, and not have to juggle complicated passwords.

Apple has always liked to do things on its own way, said Lieberman. By going the high-end hardware route and buying up AuthenTec and its patents, Apple owns the technology.

"It's always been a game of supply chain and patents. By locking up AuthenTec and high-end sensors, they now have something to block their competitors," he said.

Plus, he added, Apple is smart. It won't focus on marketing the technology inside, but the feature as a status symbol.

"You are no longer cool if you have to type in your passwords," he said.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own. Email her at news@tamara.net and follow her on Twitter @gadgetress.

If you liked this article you might like

Watch Jolt: Snapchat's Stock Gets Shredded While GE's CFO Sorta Shines

Watch Jolt: Snapchat's Stock Gets Shredded While GE's CFO Sorta Shines

Wall Street Hates That This Apple Watch Rival Is Sitting on Billions in Cash

Wall Street Hates That This Apple Watch Rival Is Sitting on Billions in Cash

Apple's HomePod Is No Amazon Echo-Killer, But It Doesn't Need to Be

Apple's HomePod Is No Amazon Echo-Killer, But It Doesn't Need to Be

Novice Trade: SPY

Novice Trade: SPY

Jim Cramer: You Have to Decide If You Want to Profit From This Moment

Jim Cramer: You Have to Decide If You Want to Profit From This Moment