Is the iPhone 5S Touch ID fingerprint scanner just a gimmick?

Apple has been accused of lacking innovation of late. Last night it announced a Touch ID fingerprint scanner on its new iPhone 5S. But is this innovation or just Apple appeasing the angry mob while not really offering much more than a gimmick?

The Touch ID scanner is a powerful bit of design. The 170-microns thin sensor sits under a laser-cut sapphire crystal surrounded by a steel detection ring capable of capturing 550ppi of resolution from your finger. It all sounds very impressive.

But, knowing Apple, if it really cared about this wouldn't it have announced a plethora of partners already working on apps that work with it? Wouldn't it have already found a way to monetise the hardware, such as adding NFC to make secure payments? It hasn't even introduced Touch ID across the iPhone range meaning developers won't want to bother with it as their apps won't work across all Apple devices. Once again we come back to the feeling that this is a gimmick.

We spoke to Barclays about the ID Scanner to see if that would be integrated into their Personal Banking app. They were barely aware of it and simply said they had no plans but always welcomed another layer of security before getting to their app login stage. But is it another layer? Or just swapping your unlock code for a simpler method? It's certainly not more secure.

Remembering a password is easy and highly secure, that's why banks still rely on it. Fingerprints have been proven to be insecure. If a thief gets your phone he won't need to cut off your finger too, luckily, as the handset will be covered in your prints that can be fairly simply lifted.

Brent Kennedy, a vulnerability analyst with the government-run US Computer Emergency and Readiness Team, says: "I’d use caution right away, let’s see how it tests and what people come up with to break it."

While spoofing a fingerprint reader is possible it's recognising the lack of active pores, which perspire, that can give away a fake. While Phil Schiller, at the iPhone 5S launch, did mention the Touch ID reads "sub-epidermal skin layers", he wasn't clear that this means active analysis.

Of course if Apple lets you use a code and your fingerprint together that's double security - even if it does detract from the speed advantage of the Touch ID. George Anderson, senior marketing manager for Webroot security, says: "A combination of both types of authentication is much more powerful from a security perspective than either on their own".

So even if the Touch ID is a gimmick initially it could grow to become a common part of all smartphones as they fill up with our sensitive personal information. The Motorola Atrix had a fingerprint scanner and that didn't change the world - but this is Apple, so who knows. We may even look back on this as the day the signature died.



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