Is Fingerprint Recognition on Mobile Devices Secure?

Posted on January 20th, 2015 by Justin Powell in Basics, Mobile, Security | Comments Off

Think about it for a moment. Being able to do things like unlock your phone or tablet to purchasing an entire virtual shopping cart of gifts off Amazon for your loved ones during the holiday – all authorized by you with a simple quick press of your finger on your phone or tablet. This is the type of technology we read about in science fictions novels and saw in movies only 10 years ago and now it’s becoming a reality. Many argue that fingerprint recognition is the holy grail of security. It combines speed, accuracy and minimal brain power, but just how secure is this trending technology?

Before diving into numbers, let’s look at where this technology is available first. The major players currently showcasing biometric fingerprint recognition are Apple with it’s iPhone 5S and the iPhone 6 and as well as Samsung with it’s Galaxy S5. As of current, Apple is allowing the use of their fingerprint recognition to buy items off their Apple stores such as iTunes and through their Apple Pay service with participating apps such as Target Mobile. Samsung has also allowed the use of your fingerprint to authorize PayPal purchases. While these seem rather limited as of now, you can expect more services to be available in the future as this technology becomes more popular. Apple and Samsung will be undoubtedly watching these services closely as they are test cases in the months to come.

fingerprint security

Currently, Apple seems to be the only company out of the two corporate giants, actually coming out forthright about the details of their fingerprint scanner. The scanner is located inside the home button on the bottom of the phone. When you setup your fingerprint for the first time, it takes 20 or so captures of your fingerprint and stores it in a secure part of your phone’s internal memory. While this may seem extreme for some, it allows a fingerprint to be read at any angle it’s positioned. This memory of your fingerprint is only available to the touch sensor app. No other apps are allowed to store this data. The Samsung S5 also stores your fingerprint in the same basic method.

Apple’s biometric fingerprint recognition securities feature a wide range of tests for accuracy. One of the most fascinating is a touch ID sensor that check to see if the fingerprint on the screen is alive and not a reproduction. Yes, this means you’ll be less likely to become the target of a person wanting to sever your hand and use it to gain access to your phone (as seen on many crime series TV dramas). In reality, this means someone would be less likely to get into your phone with just a picture of your finger or by ways of lifting your fingerprint oil patterns. The reader picks up 500ppi (points per inch) very similar to the scan sensitivity to many optical mice on the market now. The fingerprint reader also scans the user’s sub-epidermal skin layers. This means that people with dry skin won’t need to worry too much about the reader not picking them up however, this doesn’t mean the reader can scan through dirty fingers.

While all this security may seem like an overwhelming victory for merchants and a possible reason to look into a new phone, it’s always good to think about new technology as untested. Reports are still coming in from various sources stating that these fingerprint accessible phones are easily hacked. Some are saying that vulnerabilities may still exist in these designs, leaving your fingerprints vulnerable. All these signs lead me to believe this is shaping up to be a trend (like 3D TVs) but that’s not a reason not to check on reports and testimonials in future months. We may see everyone using fingerprints in the near future but as for now, I’ll keep the fingerprint recognition function turned off for my new Samsung Galaxy S5. If I were doing more purchases and got out more often, I could see the benefit of using the fingerprint software in tandem with a password protect. Then again, some of you may think I’m borderline paranoid when it comes to security. For general public use, I’d recommend using your fingerprints as a means to quickly unlock your phone if you find yourself picking it up and down very often.