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iPhone 5S foils the 'Apple pickers' -- but watch out for your fingers

New ProductsNational Security AgencyInterior PolicyApple iPhonePolitics and GovernmentTheftPersonal Data Collection

Apple’s new iPhone 5S, revealed Tuesday at its headquarters in Cupertino, will come with an extra layer of security -- a Touch ID sensor that allows users to log in to their iPhones and buy apps with their fingerprint instead of a password. It’s a convenient feature, certainly, but it has privacy advocates worried.

“Now that we know the NSA is collecting as much data as it can from American companies in the pursuit of its amorphous mandate to keep us safe, everything starts to take on a sinister aspect,” writes Jon Xavier of Silicon Valley Business Journal. People, he explains, are worried that the fingerprint scanner will “provide an easy way for the NSA to harvest biometric data from thousands of Americans.”

But, as the Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson writes, the concerns are overblown.

“Because it’s only storing a few data points on select fingers, this data is very unlikely to be useful to law enforcement for things like matching a partial print from crime scene to an individual,” she says. “So unless Apple did something radically different than earlier types of fingerprint scanners, the type data it will collect and store isn’t something that would likely be used to build some sort of huge fingerprint database. And just in case that doesn’t put you at ease, Apple claims fingerprint data stored as part of the Touch ID will stay on the phone rather than be uploaded to some central database. It’s unclear if Apple will still have access to fingerprints despite that state of affairs, but assuming it doesn’t, it would be hard for the NSA to subpoena Apple for that biometric data.”

Perhaps a more optimistic way to look at the Touch ID sensor is that extra security might deter thieves from stealing iPhones, known on the streets as “Apple picking.” If people can only use a phone that corresponds to unique fingerprints, iPhones will certainly be harder to resell. Sure, some enterprising thieves may find ways into stolen iPhones, but it’s not a simple process.  

Earlier this year, John M. Glionna, The Times’ Las Vegas bureau chief, wrote about the growing “Apple picking” problem through the lens of Marcos Arenas, a teenager who lost his life to robbers for holding on too dearly to his iPad, a gift from his struggling father. If you missed the story first time around, it’s a must-read. And it might just persuade skeptics to change their minds on the Touch ID sensor.

My only complaint now is that Apple hasn’t introduced this technology on its iPads yet.

Well, it was my only complaint, until I read this: “[N]ot to panic you, but one security [expert] has warned that whether or not the device can be hacked, owners of devices definitely can be. Thieves have mutilated victims to gain access to phones equipped with a fingerprint reader, an expert has warned. By chopping off their fingers.”

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier and Google+

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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New ProductsNational Security AgencyInterior PolicyApple iPhonePolitics and GovernmentTheftPersonal Data Collection
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