The latest iPhone, the iPhone 5S, launched last night with the usual ceremony. Slick, clever, sexy technology at its best. One feature stood out from the rest: ‘Touch ID’. As the Apple website puts it:
“[Y]our iPhone reads your fingerprint and knows who you are.”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Perhaps…. but to people who work in privacy, particularly people who have been paying attention to the revelations of Edward Snowden, it should be ringing a lot of alarm bells too. This is a big step, and associated with it are a lot of risks, not just with the technology itself, but more importantly with the implications of this kind of technology. This isn’t just a new generation of iPhone, it’s a new generation of risk. There’s a long way to go before we really understand these risks – but we need to start thinking now, right from the outset.
Keeping our fingerprint data secure?
Apple have said that the biometric information (presumably some kind of distillation or sampling of a print rather than an image of the print itself) is stored ‘securely’ on the phone itself rather than sent to Apple or even stored on the cloud. That is certainly much better than the other way around, which would raise enormous and immediate security and privacy issues, but in the light of the Snowden revelations, and in particular the PRISM programme in which Apple was implicated, these assurances can only be taken with a pretty huge pinch of salt. The possibilities of backdoors into this data, or of hacking of this data cannot be easily dismissed – and there are those within the hacker community that just love to crack iPhones. Some will be itching to get their hands on the new iPhone and see how quickly they can get this data out.
Apple have also said that they won’t give App developers access to this data – and they haven’t so far – but they didn’t add the crucial word ‘yet’. Once this system is in common use, won’t App developers be clamouring to use it? Apple themselves understand that this could lead to a whole new raft of possibilities. “Your fingerprint can also approve purchases from iTunes Store, the App Store and the iBooks Store, so you don’t have to enter your password” Would that be the end of it? Hardly. As I shall expand below, this kind of system helps ‘normalise’ the use of fingerprints as an authentication system – of course it has already begun to be normalised, but building it into the iPhone takes that normalisation to a new level.
Why would they want your fingerprints?
Fingerprints have been used as a way of identifying people for a very long time – since the 19th Century at least – and it is that ability to identify people that is the key to both the strengths and the weaknesses of the system. Ostensibly, the idea of ‘Touch ID’ is that it helps you, the user, to control who has access to your phone, by checking anyone who tries to use the phone against a list of authorised users – you and those you’ve said can use it. Others, however, can use your fingerprints for many other reasons – the well known use of fingerprints for crime detection is just part of it. When dealing with data, though, the key point about a fingerprint is that it links the data to you in the real world. If someone gets your iPhone but doesn’t know that it’s yours, and they then check your print on that phone’s database, they can be ‘sure’ it’s yours, no matter how much you deny it. That in itself raises privacy issues (and no doubt begins the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide’ argument again) but also raises possibilities of misuse.
Linking with other data
Once they know that a phone is yours, the possibilities to link to other information are immense, and growing all the time. Think how much data you have on your smartphone. You use it for your email. You use it to make calls, to send texts, to social network, to tweet - - so all of your communications are opened up. You have your photos on it – so add in a little facial recognition and another vast number of connections are opened up. You keep your music on it – so you can be profiled in a detailed way in terms of preferences. You probably access your bank account, perhaps have travel tickets in your Passbook. You may well do work on your phone – keep notes or voice memos. The possibilities are endless – and the fingerprint can form an anchor point, linking all this information together and attaching it to the ‘real’ you.
That’s part of the rub. Many people have already said ‘but the government already have this data, haven’t you ever entered the US?’ Yes, the US government have a database of fingerprints of all those of us who’ve entered the US in recent years – but this creates a link between that government database and pretty much all the data there is out there about you. It’s true, the authorities may well have already made that link – but why make it easier, and almost as importantly why make it normal and acceptable for that link to be made?
This, to me, is the most important issue of all. Even if Apple’s security system works, even if there is no ‘function creep’ into greater uses within the Apple system, even if the fears over the NSA and other intelligence agencies are overblown (and they might be), the ‘normalisation’ of using fingerprints as a standard method of authentication matters. In the UK there was a huge amount of resistance to the introduction of a compulsory, biometric ID card – resistance that ultimately defeated the bill intended to introduce the card, and that played at least a small part in the defeat of the Labour government in 2010. We don’t like the idea that the authorities can say ‘your papers please’ whenever they like, and demand that we prove who we are. It smacks of police states – and denies individual freedom. We shouldn’t need to ‘prove’ who we are unless that proof is absolutely necessary – and in the vast, vast majority of cases it isn’t.
And yet, with systems like this, we seem to be accepting something very similar without even thinking about it. The normalisation of fingerprinting is already happening – the border-check fingerprinting is just one part of it. In many UK schools, kids are required to give their fingerprints in order to get food from the canteen – essentially for convenience, so they don’t have to carry cash around – and there has been barely a murmur of complaint. Indeed, it may be too late to stop this normalisation – but we should at least be aware of what we’re sleepwalking into.
Each little step makes the idea of fingerprinting more acceptable – and brings on the next step. If Apple’s Touch ID is successful, we can pretty much guarantee that other smartphone developers will introduce their own systems, and the idea will become universal. The idea has been there for a few years already – on laptops and on other devices. As is often the case, Apple aren’t the first, but they may be the first to bring it full-scale to the mainstream.
Just because it’s cool…
As I’ve written before – most directly concerning Google Glass (see here) – there’s a strong tendency to develop and build technology ‘because it’s cool’, without fully thinking through the consequences. ‘Touch ID’ in some ways is very cool – but I do have the same feelings of concern as I have about Google Glass. Do we really know what we’re opening up here? I’ve outlined some of my immediate concerns here – but these are just part of the possibilities. As Bruce Schneier said:
“It’s bad civic hygiene to build technologies that could someday be used to facilitate a police state”
I’m concerned that what Apple are doing here is part of that bad civic hygiene. I hope I’m wrong. I am a fan of Apple – I have been since the 80s, when I bought my first Mac. I wrote this blog on an Apple computer, and have had iPhones since the first generation. My instinct is to like Apple, and to trust them. PRISM shook that trust – and this fingerprinting system is shaking that trust even more.
The biggest point, however, is the normalisation one. It may well be that we’re beyond the point of no return, and fingerprinting and other biometrics are now part of the environment. I hope not – but at the very least we should be talking about the risks and taking appropriate precautions. It may also be that this is just a storm in a teacup, and that I’m being overly concerned about something that really doesn’t matter much. I hope so. Time will tell.