How smartphones pioneer new ways of keeping our information safe

We have plenty of biometric solutions built into our lives, but can smartphones bring that to the next level?

20Feb

2019 is shaping up to be a year that finally gives security the attention it deserves. In the UK and US, two-in-five adults have had a password stolen, account hacked or received a notification that their personal information had been compromised.

In fact, according to TeleSign, seven in 10 of us no longer trust the use of passwords to keep our personal information safe.

Luckily, as the tools available to hackers become more advanced, so too does the level of protection available to us, and some of the biggest pioneers in forging a more secure future for everyone can be found in smartphone manufacturing.

The concept of a passwordless future may have seemed like a fanciful one only a decade ago, but since Motorola successfully incorporated a fingerprint sensor into their 2011 handset, Atrix, something of a biometric gold rush has emerged as manufacturers scramble to create the most effective level of security with no passwords in sight.

Today, we have plenty of biometric solutions built into our smartphones that are paving the way for a more secure future. Here, we'll take a look at some leading examples of biometric security in handsets and their importance in saving us from prying eyes.

Fingerprint scanning

Adopted at the beginning of the decade by Motorola, it was Apple's iPhone 5S that was the first major player in the biometric scanning game.

Users of the iPhone 5S may have been caught off guard by no longer needing to use a passcode to unlock their handset. Upon its 2013 release, the 5S looked like a significant step into the realm of science fiction rather than a counter-hacking measure.

Within five years, fingerprint scanning became an industry standard, and numerous iOS and Android models came equipped with the password-busting hardware that heralded what developers hoped would become a new era of biometric security.

Significantly, many iOS and Android applications have been updated to incorporate the use of fingerprint scanning as a way of bypassing password-based login measures. Here, instead of the old standard of multiple-factor authentification measures (typically a password accompanied by a "memorable word" in the case of Halifax's banking app, for example), users were invited to save a significant amount of time by simply planting their finger on the phone's built-in sensor in order to be granted immediate access.

The significance of fingerprint scanning is that it's relatively cost-effective to implement can comfortably bypass the more long-winded and fallible security measures of passcodes and passwords. Through the need of a registered fingerprint on-hand to gain access to a device or app, this form of security has become efficient in limiting the level of fraud being committed on stolen or hijacked smartphones – but this technological advancement didn't stop further measures being taken.

Facial recognition

It may seem like the fresh-faced descendant of fingerprint scanning, but facial recognition had been utilized by Google's Nexus range in 2011 before the Samsung Galaxy S8 brought face recognition technology into the mainstream with a fine-tuned approach that enabled the verification security to become much more usable for customers.

Since then, Apple has gone all in on facial recognition in its flagship model: The iPhone X. The iPhone X's Face ID function has in fact superseded the finger technology that had become commonplace in plenty of Apple products – with developers seeing this software as much more convenient for all parties. The Face ID allows a secure way to unlock, authenticate and pay, and is enabled by TrueDepth, which runs on A11 Bionic.

Writing for CNet, Bridget Carey explains how Apple's Face ID system works: "The tech of the face scan is packed into an area on top of the phone, called the True Depth Camera system. It scans the shape of your face with infrared light, a beam of 30,000 dots that are invisible to the human eye. As the phone creates a depth map of your face, the data is turned into a mathematical representation. It's encrypted and lives locked in your device, never backed up to the iCloud or anywhere else."

Because Apple has utilized infrared light in order to accurately scan faces, the reliability of this brand of facial recognition is much better than earlier attempts that were widely considered impractical and gimmicky. Face ID even includes an "alternate appearance" option for users to scan their face in different circumstances – just in case you like to wear heavy make-up or your hangover face is often a little bit more swollen than your Tuesday afternoon face.

Facial recognition appears to have pipped the use the similar iris scanning technology to prominence in developing smartphone security. But the practice still exists on some Samsung Galaxy and Microsoft Lumia models. However, many developers believe iris scanning to be too insecure currently to authenticate banking and payment-based applications. A stumbling block that facial recognition is beginning to surpass.

Heartrate scanning

Just in case you haven't yet taken external biometrics to heart, Samsung recently filed a patent that details ways to track the flow of blood inside a user through photoplethysmography (PPG), electrocardiography (ECG), and galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors.

While such technology will certainly make waves in tracking human health, biometric scientists agree that blood flow is actually a unique trait that varies from person to person – meaning that the technology could ultimately make for a continual verification system by constantly monitoring its user's blood flow through their pulse. The rapidly increasing instances of cybercrime illustrate the flaws of password-based security systems both in smartphones and online. Fortunately, while hacking tools develop and become more aggressive, we get to benefit from the realization of the potential that biometric verification. Forgetting passwords is a sure-fire way to ruin anyone's day, so the next time it happens just cast your mind forward to a future where we'll never have to remember a security phrase again. Bliss.

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