A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Touch ID

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When I was young I was an early adopter. I had to have every new gadget as soon as it was released. Because of that I was also a beta tester. Now that I’m older and don’t have the time to dick around with buggy products I wait until early adopters have played with a device for a while before purchasing it. The beta testers for the iPhone 6 have done a fantastic job as far as I can see so I finally upgrade to one.

I’m not too thrilled about the increased size but it’s not so big as to be difficult to use (unlike the iPhone 6 Plus, which combines all of the worst features of a phone and tablet into one big mistake). Other than the size it’s basically like previous iPhones but with added processing power and storage. Since I was upgrading from an iPhone 5 I also gained access to Touch ID, Apple’s finger print authentication system.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with an acknowledgement of how poor fingerprints are as a security token. When you use your fingerprint for authentication you are literally leaving your authentication token on everything you touch. That means a threat can not only get your authentication token but can do so at their leisure. Once a threat has your fingerprint there’s nothing you can do to change it.

With that disclaimer out of the way I must admit that I really like Touch ID. Fingerprints may not be the best authentication method in existence but all of us make security tradeoffs of some sort every day (since the only truly secure computer is one that cannot be used). Security and convenience are mutually exclusive. This is probably the biggest reason so many people are apathetic about computer security. But I think Touch ID does a good job of finding that balance between security and convenience.

Until Apple implemented Touch ID the only two options you had for security your iPhone were a four digit PIN or a more complex password. A phone is a device you pull out and check numerous times throughout the day and usually those checks are a desire to find some small bit of information quickly. That makes complex passwords, especially on a touchscreen keyboard, a pain in the ass. Most people, if they have any form of security on their phone at all, opt for a four digit PIN. Four digit PINs keep out only the most apathetic attackers. If you want to be secure against a threat that is willing to put some work into cracking your device you need something more secure.

Touch ID works as a secondary method of authentication. You still need to have a four digit PIN or a password on the device. That, in my opinion, is the trick to Touch ID being useful. If you reboot your phone you will need to authenticate with your four digit PIN or password. Until that first authentication after boot up Touch ID is not available. Another way to make Touch ID unavailable is not to log into your phone for 48 hours.

The Fifth Amendment does not protect you from surrendering your fingerprint to the police. That means law enforcers can compel you to give your fingerprint so they can unlock your phone. Whether passwords are protected by the Fifth Amendment is a topic still being fought in the courts. If you’re arrested a password is going to be a better method of securing your device from the state than your fingerprint. Because of how Touch ID works you can thwart law enforcement’s ability to take your fingerprint by simply powering off the phone.

Only you can decide if Touch ID is an appropriate security mechanism for you. I’m really enjoying it because now I can have a complex password on my phone without having to type it in every time I pull it out of my pocket. But I also admit that fingerprints are poor authentication mechanisms. Tradeoffs are a pain in the ass but they’re the only things that make our electronic devices usable.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 30th, 2014 at 11:00 am