Does the iPhone 5S Fingerprint Tech Make You Safer?

By Bob Sullivan

NEW YORK ( — Apple's biggest contribution to the technology world has been its ability to bring order to chaos. The iTunes music service is the best example of this: before iTunes, the world of music downloads was the Wild West. There were outlaws, like Napster and its rivals, who ran clunky attempts to commercialize the rogue industry out of town. Apple changed all that by making the music download experience uniform and simple.

The most promising element of Apple's new fingerprint scanner, announced as part of the new iPhone 5S on Wednesday, is the potential to bring order to the chaotic world of personal gadget security. The Touch ID system will let users wake up their phones with a simple finger touch. It's a big step forward, but it shouldn't be confused as a big step forward in security; it's more of a big step forward in convenience and a small step forward in security.

Let's get this out of the way first -- Apple will have to provide some alternative mechanism to unlock phones, and that means hackers and criminals will be able to circumvent Touch ID. Fingerprints suffer damage (kitchen cuts!) and fingerprint readers break. Apple will have to offer the equivalent of a password reset option to those folks, and just like all other "lost password" retrieval systems, that will almost certainly be the weakest link in the chain. By definition, it can't be any stronger than current systems. Touch ID will be easier to use than PIN codes, resulting in happier (if not much more secure) users, and that's why Apple is adopting it.

Security Is (Somewhat) in the Hands of the User

That said, we've already heard a tremendous amount of catcalls from geeks since the announcement of Apple's Touch ID, describing all the various horrible things that can happen to users. Fingers can be cut off and used to unlock stolen phones, certainly. It's possible that prints can be lifted off martini glasses in bars and molds made, also, though there's hope that Apple's capacitive sensor system will make that harder to do.