Monday, 23 September 2013

Can the iPhone 5s push biometrics into mass appeal?

Until the announcement of the iPhone 5s' finger print scanner or 'Touch ID', you were more likely think of Biometric technologies at an airport or with your passport than on your phone. That's because historically, the technology has only really consistently made mainstream news when added or adopted to immigration procedures and passports, normally holding facial data and/or fingerprints. Despite this, biometric identification has evolved and made its way to a variety of locations in the last decade, from to Disneyland's fingerprinting on entry to identifying high value customers in retail and even processing payment with your face alone. However, the opportunities such technology can provide are counterbalanced by concerns about privacy and data security, as the possibilities for widespread consumer biometric uses are consistently dogged by concerns about who stores your data.

Apple's inclusion of the technology in their new handset may be set to change the nature of concern over Biometrics, as widespread usage may create a more permissive attitude towards biometric logins and payment in consumer's lives. Thoughts on the ethics of biometric technology growth aside, the 5s' fingerprint scanner has the opportunity to 'trojan horse' the technology, by positioning it as a normal iPhone feature instead of some scary 'biometric' concept, in getting consumers to login with biometrics and pay for things (as the fingerprint reader can also be linked to iTunes). A user adopting both of these behaviours has gone beyond simply sharing their biometric data and storing it into an even more complex action of tying real money to the technology.

Getting consumers to accept the technology won't be without its challenges however, though Apple seems well prepared in the way they built their hardware. In the few days since the launch of the 5s, Touch ID has already seen US senators inquiring about biometric data privacy, a hack prize (including currently some liquor, bit coins and a 'dirty sex book') being established for the technology and more than a few questions about muggers taking your finger with them when absconding with your new phone.

Apple's structuring of the technology seemingly anticipated these concerns as the hardware in the phone specifically addresses data privacy and hacking issues. Instead of storing your biometric data in the cloud, once recorded the system currently stores the data in a secure section of the phone's A7 processor, only sharing a non-reversible 'mathematical representation' of your biometrics . While this doesn't completely answer the questions that may arise around Touch ID and privacy, it is a step towards allaying the normal consumer's concern (odds are the government already has your thumb print on file anyway). As for the security of the technology itself, Apple seems to have anticipated consumer's fears of losing a digit, as the reader itself uses RF capacitive reader which only works on 'live' fingers. While this may be a bit complex to explain in the heat of a mugging, it is reassuring. Finally, the RF ID technology, combined with a more sophisticated than normal reader (Apple's uses voltage cells to detect ridges over simply taking a photo of your finger and analyzing it) means that hackers may have to go beyond simply lifting a print and employing a gummy bear to get into your phone. This does however mean that the technology is still vulnerable to an industrious partner 'sleep hacking' your phone with your hand as you slumber.

So while Apple's technology and PR team seem capable to bat back concerns around Touch ID, what does its adoption mean for the wider world of biometrics?

 Greater adoption looks to erode security concerns and several groups will benefit from the ability to deploy greater iterations of biometric tech. Developers, if allowed access to Touch ID technology, could rapidly grow the footprint of it by integrating it into log-ins such as Facebook and Google Connect. Retailers and financial institutions could marry biometric enabled purchases to loyalty and customer data without the need for swipe cards such as a nectar barcode or other mechanics, speeding up purchase and creating greater consumer insight.

Advertisers and media owners, if granted a greater license to implement biometric identification,
could roll out greater addressibility of advertising in traditionally non-personalized channels such as DOOH and in retail environments. The fact that your face could tie together purchase history and identification means that the minority report style OOH could occur or that prices in a retail establishment could dynamically change on shelf based on who's in front of it. Facebook could already serve as the UK's largest repository of biometric facial data, but tech advances could prove as a way to use it effectively and get consumer acquiescence. Many of these concepts are already or almost possible using mobile technology, but biometrics could eliminate the need for a user device in many 'on the go' advertising channels.

Many of the larger opportunities around biometric technology are years away, but if Touch ID can begin to shift what consumers consider around 'biometrics' and how they feel about it, it represents an incremental step towards a world where your face or finger will be the only credit card and password you ever need. Now we just need someone to explain how 'password reset' will work.

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