Apple's new fingerprint scanner: A good idea gone wrong

Apple’s new fingerprint scanner is a good idea. But the company has crippled it so much that it’s little more than a gimmick at best and a security problem at worst.

The fingerprint scanner, dubbed “Touch ID” by Apple, is one of the key new features of the 5S, the company’s new flagship smartphone that Apple unveiled Tuesday. The scanner is built into the device’s home button. Users interact with it by simply placing their finger on the button.

Apple is pitching Touch ID as a way to secure iPhones by replacing passcodes. At the company’s press event Tuesday, marketing chief Phil Schiller noted that about half of the smartphone owners out there don’t use a passcode to secure their devices. Touch ID is supposed to be an easier way to do the same thing — you don’t have to remember a passcode or type one in, you simple touch your finger to the button.

In my brief tests at the Apple event, Touch ID did this task fairly well. It took several minutes to configure for my fingerprint, but afterward the phone I was using recognized it quickly and immediately unlocked the phone.

The problem with Touch ID is that it does little else.

One of the big potential uses of an authentication technology like Touch ID is the ability to personalize a device for individual users. Indeed, Touch ID will recognize up to five individual fingerprints from potentially five different people.

But Apple doesn’t support multi-user personalization in iOS. So, you can’t use Touch ID to create custom log ins for the iPhone 5S. Everyone who logs into the phone using the fingerprint sensor gets the same view — and the same access to the same group of apps and data.

Now, you may ask why that matters. Well, many parents allow their kids to play on their phones. But they may not want them to delete apps, rearrange the home screen or even access particular programs. While Touch ID could potentially help solve that problem — by recognizing a child as a distinct user from his or her parent — it can’t because Apple’s iOS software doesn’t allow owners to lock particular users out of different features.

But that’s not the only shortcoming of Touch ID. The idea of using a fingerprint instead of a passcode likely has wide appeal among a large group of software developers. Imagine using your fingerprint to log into your bank account or even into your Facebook app.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to do either of those things or anything like them with the iPhone 5S. That’s because Apple isn’t opening up the fingerprint scanner to outside developers.

Touch ID does have one other feature right now besides allowing users to log into their phones. It can be used instead of a password to purchases in Apple’s iTunes and App stores. If you’re like me, and have a long password, there’s a lot of appeal to just using your thumbprint.

But wait, there’s a good chance that you won’t want to turn on the feature. That’s because if you turn it on, it’s accessible for all recognized users of the device. In other words, any fingerprint that can be used to log into the phone can also be used to make purchases in Apple’s stores — on your account.

That’s got to be one of the most ill-conceived features I’ve ever heard Apple come up with. Instead of enhancing security, it makes your iTunes accounts far less secure than they were previously.

My daughter, for example, has no idea what my password is for iTunes. But if she can log on to my phone with just her thumbprint, she can suddenly make purchases on my phone by just tapping her thumb again.

Sure, I can simply turn off the feature or I can avoid training my phone to recognize my daughter’s print. But if I do the former, I can’t take advantage of the feature myself. And if I do the latter, I’m stuck having to touch my thumb to my phone every time my daughter wants to use it.

The reason for the limitation is the same as before: iOS doesn’t support personalization. You can’t create a customized view of your iPhone for different recognized users. If you turn on a feature, it’s turned on for all users.

I pleaded with Apple earlier this year to add support for multiple users into iOS. The feature is already built into Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Phone operating system. It’s also a key part of OS X, which runs on Apple’s Mac computers.

Apple ignored my suggestion. I think that’s a mistake, but the company obviously had other priorities with iOS 7, the latest version of the the iPhone operating system.

But what they’ve done with Touch ID has made things worse, not better. It’s one thing to not support personalized views for multiple users. It’s another thing to enable those multiple users to have make purchases on on owners’ credit card.

Bad move, Apple.

Photo courtesy of Apple

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (256 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.