Two Easy Ways Apple Could Improve the iPhone 5s Fingerprint Sensor

The iPhone 5S is the first consumer device that actually brings useful, reliable biometrics to the masses via its ‘fingerprint identity sensor.’ In July of 2012, Apple bought Authentec, and now the fruits of that acquisition are clear. Security biometrics have been used in smatterings of tech products for years, but never consistently or reliably. The fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S is going to change all of that. It already is.

But it’s not perfect, and how it’s implemented needs some fine tuning. The purpose of this article is to explain, from my perspective, how it could be tuned to be more useful and less annoying.

Why a fingerprint sensor?

Simple – device passcodes are annoying and easy to crack, unless you opt for longform passwords, at which point they become even more annoying. Biometrics promise freedom from passcodes and a higher level of security, as access is tied to one’s fingerprint instead of a (probably-brute-forceable) number. (Feel free to insert your own, “Yeah, but what if someone has your severed finger?” joke here.)

The Problem

As iOS 7 handles it right now, the fingerprint sensor functionality has two issues. One, it requires a fingerprint authentication every time you unlock your phone; in other words, it requires a passcode immediately upon the phone being put to sleep. Yesterday, I counted how many times I unlocked my phone: 45. Of those 45 times, fingerprint authentication worked perfectly save two times. Those two times, it took me several attempts for the sensor to work. That’s still a great hit-rate, but it’s annoying to have to re-authenticate if I turn my phone off, forget to send a reply to a text, and have to re-authenticate one second later, and that re-authentication doesn’t work for some reason.

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Let’s think about that: if you’re unlocking your phone 45 times a day, that means the fingerprint sensor needs to work (and work well) a ton. Over a week, that means 315 scanning instances, and over a year you’re talking 16,425 times the scanner must be invoked to unlock your phone. That’s a lot, and one has to wonder what the boundary limits are for how often the sensor is designed to work.

The iPhone 5S fingerprint sensor also offers another cool feature: it lets you use your fingerprint for App Store and iTunes purchases instead of mashing in your Apple ID password on the keypad. This is very nice, except that it’s tied to the aforementioned annoying must-authenticate-every-time functionality.

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The Solution

  1. Offer time intervals before a passcode (fingerprint authentication) is required. I believe on non-iPhone 5S models, you have your tried-and-true interval options: 1 minute, 5 minutes, 15 minutes, never, etc. If I could set this to something other than Immediate on my iPhone 5S, the fingerprint scanning would be much less invasive and wouldn’t be called upon with such insane frequency.
  2. Divorce the authentication function from the App Store and iTunes purchase function. In other words, allow me to disable password authentication for the device, but let me use fingerprint authentication for app and music purchases. As it stands today, if you disable fingerprint authentication for the device, you cannot continue to use it in lieu of your Apple ID password whenever you download something from the App Store or iTunes.

These two tweaks would improve the fingerprint sensor experience immeasurably.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

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One Response

  1. Joan says:

    My fingerprint authorization works only 2 out of every 100 times which means virtually never. It is more than annoying. It indicated the print was acceptable when I “installed” it but never recognizes it. I have put in prints for 2 different fingers.

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