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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Myth: The iPhone’s Fingerprint Scanner is Un-Hackable

Fact: Less than one week following the iPhone 5S launch, German hackers revealed an at-home remedy to break into the fingerprint scanner Apple invested over $356 million to produce. 

On Sept. 10, 2013, Apple introduced the highly-anticipated iPhone 5S. The iPhone 5S is visibly different than before. It comes in three colors (black, white, and gold), and replaces the home button with the Touch ID fingerprint scanner.

The Touch ID security system was designed to put the iPhone 5S in media limelight, and to make the smart phone stand out from its competitors. However, the security feature made headlines that put the Touch ID into unfavorable light and public scrutiny. 

Just days after the iPhone 5S was available to the market, a group of German hackers claimed to break into the Touch ID fingerprint scanner. The Berlin-based group of hackers call themselves The Chaos Computer Club (CCC). The group announced a successful hack of the Touch ID scanner on the group's website the Sunday following launch.

A CCC hacker by the name of Starburg announced his successful break in utilizing his self-made process of laser printing. The process creates false fingerprint prints. Starburg demonstrates that novice hackers can use everyday items such as superglue and graphite powder to make a lifted fingerprint print out. 

"In reality, Apple's sensor has just a higher resolution compared to the sensors so far. So we only needed to ramp up the resolution of our fake," Starburg announced. "As we have said now for more than years, fingerprints should not be used to secure anything. You leave them everywhere, and it is far too easy to make fake fingers out of lifted prints," (

Since the original hack by The CCC, many additional hacker solutions have been revealed. Hacker solutions have become so common, that a big chunk of consumers have reported security problems with the Touch ID system. According to a poll conducted by Forbes Magazine, the scanner has a fail rate of nearly 20%. 

Even with such severe public scrutiny, Apple still managed to once again pave the way to smart phone innovation. Many other smart phone industry leaders have jumped on the band wagon of fingerprint security systems. Imitating Apple's Touch ID, HTC quickly released the One Max fingerprint security system. Additionally, Samsung is working toward releasing a similar fingerprint scanner for their Galaxy line. 

By studying industry leaders, it is clear that the fingerprint security feature will become ubiquitous in smart phones. However, consumers must not infer that ubiquity necessarily correlates with security. Smart phone industry leaders are using the fingerprint system because it is the biggest fad, not the most secure. 

I am not saying you shouldn't use the fingerprint feature. I am also not implying that your cell phone is not secure from the average hacker. If you want to keep your boyfriend from snooping in your phone, the fingerprint feature may be the solution. However, if you boyfriend happens to be an amateur computer hacker, a fingerprint scanner may not be the security feature for you.

Lucy Rymes

University of Minnesota
Jour 3279
Blog Assignment