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Apple and Advanced Biometrics

When Apple debuted Touch ID on the iPhone 5s in 2013, it wasn’t the first fingerprint sensor to appear on a mobile phone. But it probably reached far more people than any predecessor or successor for that matter.

As with some other technologies, such as the Siri digital assistant, Apple didn’t just invent fingerprint sensing out of whole cloth. It came about as the result of the acquisition of a pioneer in the industry, AuthenTec, the previous year. The price, $356 million, was high for Apple at the time, but it was an important move for the company’s future, which included mobile payments.

After all, Apple Pay, which also relies on NFC for proximity detection, wasn’t simply sprung upon an unsuspecting public without a lot of advanced development, which included measures to ensure the highest level of security.

So let’s look at Apple’s most popular competitor, the Samsung Galaxy S8. Released in April, it sports three biometric systems, and all of them are flawed in some way.

Unfortunately, the fingerprint sensor was placed at the rear, because Samsung was evidently not able to figure out a way to embed it in its edge-to-edge AMOLED display. So you have to reach awkwardly in back to unlock the unit, and there’s the risk of smudging the camera lens. So keep a tissue handy.

There are also facial and iris detection sensors, but they are easily defeated by photographs. It makes them useless, and thus puts the owner in a position where only one of three security systems holds the chance of actually providing security.

But what about Apple?

Well, there are ongoing rumors that an iPhone 8 is coming this fall, a special higher-priced model that will incorporate new technologies and honor the product’s 10th anniversary. While Apple doesn’t generally confirm such rumors, it is reported that it will sport an edge-to-edge display, with varying size estimates. There may be a 3D sensor and other advancements, including the first iteration of wireless charging on an Apple gadget.

If true, it’ll be an extraordinary gadget sporting capabilities that will, in time, spread to the regular iPhone models. Compare that to the 27-inch iMac’s 5K display. At first, it was offered on a special, pricier model, but the following year, all larger iMacs went 5K. So perhaps whatever Apple introduces in an iPhone 8 could become the norm in 2018.

Or maybe Apple will see the benefit of always offering a premium model as a means to introduce new technologies.

By far the most confusing rumor, however, is the fate of the iPhone’s Touch ID. Before I go on, don’t forget that this is a mission critical feature. It’s not only important for security, but forms the basis of access to Apple Pay. Because your stored fingerprints are embedded in a secure enclave coprocessor, it appears to be foolproof. You need a live finger, so you can’t pull the grisly stunt you see in the movies, where someone’s finger is cut off and is used to open a protected mobile device or a door lock.

But since Samsung wasn’t able to fit a fingerprint sensor in the front of the Galaxy S8, it is assumed that Apple won’t either. So Touch ID will either be rear-mounted, or nonexistent. The rumors have gone back and forth without any final conclusions. We may not know until the device, if real, is actually demonstrated at an Apple media event.

But since biometrics are critical to an iPhone, it’s not going to be omitted on the mythical iPhone 8. After all, how would Apple Pay, essential for Apple’s fast-growing services business, work?

So it appears to me that Apple probably licked the alleged Touch ID problem and it’ll probably remain on the front of the device.

But there is a published report that Apple is currently testing a successor to Touch ID, a facial recognition scheme that relies on a 3D sensor. If true, it would mean that 2D photos can’t be used to fool the sensor, but does that mean it’ll be as seamless as Touch ID?

To be sure, Touch ID has been somewhat of a work in progress. With the iPhone 5s, it worked all right, most of the time. As iOS was updated, it got more reliable, and a glitch in which sensitivity to your fingerprint would drop over time was more or less resolved.

Even with the latest gear, it usually requires setting two or more fingerprints to make it reliable. My approach is to set one for each thumb. That way, however I grab my iPhone, I can be certain it’ll usually function. It’s not quite 100%, but close enough under most circumstances.

What’s more, I’ve not heard of people being able to crack Touch ID. But I have no doubt that Apple is working on better systems. In addition to facial recognition, which is already being used in a simpler fashion for such apps as Photos, Apple is probably testing iris sensors too.

It’s quite possible a future iPhone — maybe even the iPhone 8 — will sport at least two biometric sensors. Regardless of which solution or solutions appear, Apple is not going to release something of that sort unless it actually works and provides extreme levels of security. Compare that to Samsung, a company that doesn’t seem to care whether a highly-promoted — and significant security feature — works or not.