Apple's Touch ID moves the goalposts for mobile security
Apple's latest event may seem like a letdown for many Apple watchers. Rumors and leaks had correctly predicted most of the information over the past few weeks, including the colored plastic iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5S adding a new gold color to its lineup.
One of the predicted technologies in the new iPhone 5S was a fingerprint sensor built in the the phone's home button. Touch ID -- as Apple is calling the feature -- can be used to unlock an iPhone 5S. It can also be used as a secure authentication mechanism for other iOS features and applications, such as making a purchase from the iOS App Store, iTunes Store, and iBookstore. It appears that Touch ID may also be able to manage a user's Apple ID information.
The Apple ID is a critical account that accomplishes several important things:
- Links a user to iCloud
- Authorizes specific computers or devices to access personal content like music or TV shows
- Connects a user to certain Apple support options
- Can be used to reset a user's password to his or her personal Mac if it is forgotten
- It is central to making app and content purchases to make purchases (as well as to being a assigned app license under the revamped and much more enterprise friendly app licensing options debuting in iOS 7)
- Perhaps most importantly, it is the basis of the new activation lock security feature in iOS that renders a lost or stolen iOS device useless.
The fact that Apple is linking Touch ID with Apple ID features shows the company has thoroughly tested and trusts the technology. Given that some fingerprint sensor peripherals have issues accurately reading a print, this is an impressive feat. While Apple spelled out the technologies built into the new home button, it didn't provide many details about Touch ID during the event.
But a note in the company's press release about the feature gives some great details about how it works and notes that the system is capable of learning a user's fingerprint from repeated use.
Built into the home button, Touch ID uses a laser-cut sapphire crystal, together with the capacitive touch sensor, to take a high-resolution image of your fingerprint and intelligently analyze it to provide accurate readings from any angle. Setting up Touch ID to recognize your fingerprint is easy, and every time you use it, it gets better. The Touch ID sensor recognizes the touch of a finger so the sensor is only activated when needed, preserving battery life.
Apple also took pains to ensure that users understand the company isn't recording their biometric data-- a growing concern given this summer's string of revelations about the NSA and its various clandestine programs that appear to compel the cooperation of the technology companies.
All fingerprint information is encrypted and stored securely in the Secure Enclave inside the A7 chip on the iPhone 5s; it’s never stored on Apple servers or backed up to iCloud.
Apple did say that the Touch ID feature is deeply integrated into iOS 7. This could mean that third-party apps will eventually be able to integrate it as a secure authentication tool for accessing a range of personal and enterprise resources (although Apple took pains to say that third-party apps would not be able to access the actual fingerprint information).
In fact, it would be an excellent complement to many enterprise productivity and file/document sharing tools. Rather than have the choice of access Google services or Dropbox with either simply username and password (which is weak) or the limited and somewhat clunky two factor authentication both companies offer (and which proved somewhat disastrous for users after a recent Google update), users could easily rely on a much more secure authentication option.
It's easy to see the feature being extended into enterprise apps or, more powerfully, into enterprise mobile management solutions like those from AirWatch, MobileIron, Centrify, and others. The focus on single sign-on capabilities among many mobile management and mobile document security vendors like Accellion and Acronis is an ideal place for fingerprint authentication. Whether Apple will extend the functionality to that degree remains to be seen, but it seems hard to believe that Apple would keep the functionality to itself when there are so many excellent applications for it.
With news this week that Google Compute Engine cloud is now generally available, the battle in the Infrastructure-as-a-Service market has hit a new level. The biggest question is: Can Google give the kingpin of the public IaaS market, Amazon Web Services (AWS), a run for its money?
KitKat, the latest version (4.4) of Android, has been downloaded to only 1.1% of active Android smartphones and tablets since its debut on Halloween nearly five weeks ago. What's the hold-up?