iPhone 8 may have fingerprint-scanning screen for constant authentication and peace of mind


The first modern smartphone fingerprint scanner made its debut with the Apple iPhone 5s, and it changed everything. This biometric feature was so perfectly executed, it revolutionized smartphone security and privacy in a quiet, yet profound way. With just a touch on the home button, the phone was able to instantly and reliably authenticate the user and let them in. Boom. Done. No more annoying passwords, passcodes, or any other leftovers from the keyboard era.

A massive positive side effect of this new device locking mechanism was that more people actually started securing their handsets. So it wasn't just those who had been previously using passcodes that switched to fingerprints – people who had thus far kept their phones completely insecure also started using the fingerprint scanner as a quick, easy and almost invisible privacy enhancer.

Since the iPhone 5s came about, though, not much has been done to improve the smartphone fingerprint. The technology has become a bit faster and more reliable over the course of a few generations, but for the most part, the experience is largely the same.

The next big step in smartphone security, and peace of mind

This year, though, Apple has a shot at changing this. The company is working on the iPhone 8, which is expected to be a major overhaul in more ways than one, including biometrics.

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It's not a secret that both Apple and Samsung are working on a special fingerprint scanner implementation, that has the sensor itself hidden somewhere behind the display. The goal of this would be to allow the manufacturers to reduce bezels around the screen, but still keep the fingerprint scanner on the front side of the device. Samsung has thus far been unable to implement this technology in its top-tier phones, but there is still hope that Apple may succeed in time for the iPhone 8. In fact, the future of fingerprint scanning on smartphones looks incredibly bright.

Our current understanding of a phone fingerprint scanner is that it's like a small patch, either built into a button or standalone, that you have to specifically press or touch at a specific time in order for it to obtain a reading and let you in. But what if the fingerprint scanner wasn't a small button somewhere on the phone, and instead – part of, or even the whole screen itself has fingerprint-sensing properties, so that whatever interaction you do with the device, you'll be continuously authenticated? According to Apple's own patents, as well as independent biometrics experts alike, such future actually isn't too far.

We will probably move to a world of ubiquitous sensors. So it’s perfectly reasonable, and consistent with Apple’s patent application, to imagine that the entire screen of a phone would have fingerprint sensing capabilities, unlike the current small patches of fingerprint readers.” says Dr. Thomas Keenan, Professor at the University of Calgary and cybersecurity expert. “Like all technologies, this will get cheaper and it will be feasible to have a “sensor layer” under the screen.” he adds.

What's in it for me?

Leaving technology for technology's sake aside, though, the most important question here, if Apple does indeed manage to successfully bring this innovation to market this year, would concern the actual benefits such an invention may allow. And those, judging by the information we have now, are quite numerous. For instance, the “sensor layer” would be always scanning your fingerprints as you use your smartphone. This would mean that from the moment you pick up and touch your phone (no matter what part of the screen), you'll be recognized and granted access to the system. One would argue that the good fingerprint sensors of today already work quite seamlessly, but this new vision for completely invisible, yet always-there authentication sounds like the next big step for smartphone user experience.

Keenan, who has explored the subject of our waning digital privacy in a book of his own (Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy), goes further, predicting that such a development may lead to a radical change in our smartphone culture:

If the smartphone does become smart enough so it can continuously scan the biometrics of its user, this would mean that we wouldn't need to worry about where we leave our device, and whether we remembered to press that lock button. Upon being picked up by an unauthorized user, the smartphone will be able to lock itself automatically, denying access to whatever information is kept inside.

For the general consumer though, aside from not having to worry that much about the safety of their digital accounts, photos, and other data stored on their iPhone or other smartphone, possibly the biggest quality of life improvement will come from not having to go through a separate 'authentication step' for certain tasks, as is currently the case. Apple explains this user experience improvement in its patent application 9,652,066:

“... in some instances it may be undesirable to have a user perform an authentication in a separate authentication step, for example switching between tasks to perform the authentication.”

In human terms, this would mean that the authorization prompts users currently get with certain actions, such as when attempting to buy a new game on the App Store or a movie in iTunes, would no longer be needed. With the fingerprint sensors working silently behind the scenes, the user would already be authenticated when they initiate the purchase, saving them the need to see and act upon a separate pop-up prompt.

It's still up in the air if Apple will be ready with the technology in time for the iPhone 8's release later this year, or if all of the features outlined here will be present at launch. It's been speculated that the company has been struggling with both reliability and yield issues, but for most of these innovations, it looks like the question would ultimately be “when”, not “if.” And just like the first modern smartphone fingerprint sensor that debuted with the iPhone 5s, the new, under-the-screen sensor layer Apple's working on may bring about an invisible, yet profound revolution in how security and authentication work on the smartphone.

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