Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


fingerprint

(PHOTO: AFRICA STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Is Your Fingerprint Your New Digital Password?

• September 27, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: AFRICA STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

We’re entering a new era of identity verification, in which the Internet builds itself off of knowing exactly who you are rather than preserving your anonymity behind a goofy username.

There’s an old Internet one-liner (actually originated in a 1993 New Yorker cartoon) that goes: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s a play on the anonymity of the Web—in the ’90s heyday of AIM and IRC chatrooms, there was no telling who a user actually was in real life. That doesn’t hold true anymore. In fact, with Apple’s inclusion of a fingerprint scanner in the new iPhone 5s, you can now conclusively prove that you’re a cat.

TechCrunch tested out the scanner embedded underneath the new iPhone’s home button by successfully unlocking it with a cat’s paw rather than a human finger. The cat can’t do much with your smartphone, of course, but the experiment does point to the fact that we’re entering a new era of identity verification, in which the Internet builds itself off of knowing exactly who you are rather than preserving your anonymity behind a goofy username.

The push toward real online identity began as social websites became more prevalent and your IRL identity became more central to life online. Facebook continues to build itself off of knowing just who its users are, and sells that information to advertisers. With Apple’s fingerprint system, however, you won’t even need a Facebook profile or log-in password—your own unique code is already embedded in your skin. And if Apple can track every instance of you using your fingerprint, then that’s extremely salable data. If it works, that is.

We should be able to control our digital signatures in the same way that we control our physical fingerprints. That’s not an option, yet

Resolving the virtual/physical divide is a thorny, ongoing issue. “The disconnect between the physical you and digital you is hard to compensate for,” said James Varga, CEO and founder of miiCard (pronounced “my card”), an online identity company operating in 10 countries that’s able to verify over 350 million people. “As an industry born of privacy and pseudonyms, [the Internet] suffers from a fundamental lack of trust.”

That absence is preventing you from doing things online that you otherwise could. In its 2011 National Strategy for Trusted Identity in Cyberspace (NSTIC), an initiative encouraging private businesses to solve the online identity issue, the White House wrote, “When individuals and organizations can trust online identities, they can offer and use online services too complex and sensitive to have been otherwise available.”

There are different ways to build that trust. Rather than taking a fingerprint, Varga’s miiCard creates a universal ID by linking your Internet presence to your bank account. “They know you better than anyone else—you use it to pay your mortgage or your rent, it represents you as a physical person. … That’s a really good reference point that we can link digitally to the online version of you,” Varga explained.

The company began by making online financial services applications easier. “Signing an agreement is still an offline process that generates a huge dropout,” Varga noted. Instead of having to print out a form, initial it with pen, scan it, and send it back, miiCard acts as your virtual signature, guaranteeing your identity. The company now even enables its users to buy a house entirely online, no physical interaction with banks or realtors necessary.

MiiCard, along with its identity competitors like Symantec, Facebook, and (soon) Apple, trade on their ability to make things convenient for their users. They also help their client companies (like banks and insurers) cut down on the identity fraud that’s an inherent risk of doing business online. Yet the prospect of surrendering so much data to a private company is frightening for users, no matter how easy it makes things. Apple says it won’t store iPhone 5s fingerprint data in the cloud, protecting it from hackers, and miiCard lets users disclose only the information they want to share, but doubts about security remain.

One solution would be to have the government create and regulate a universal ID system, piggybacking on our current standard of drivers’ licenses and social security cards. In fact, the digitally adept Estonian government has already created its own e-ID system that 90 percent of citizens participate in. The ID acts as an all-in-one health insurance card, passport, public transportation pass, and banking device. But part of the impetus for the NSTIC program is that the U.S. government found its citizens simply weren’t willing to participate in pilot programs—a trend that’s perhaps unsurprising given the recent revelations of NSA Internet surveillance. Why give up even more information?

User adoption is a major problem facing online ID systems. “Even though we have passports and IDs, the average consumer doesn’t want the government to do it for them,” Varga argued. “It’s seen as too controlling.” There’s also the issue that even nationalized digital IDs aren’t quite universal. “The Internet is global,” Varga said. “Even where the countries have state online IDs, their next challenge is, how will they work together globally?”

OpenID presents an answer to that problem by building a coalition of international companies that support a universal ID platform that’s run by a foundation instead of a corporation. Backed by AT&T, Google, PayPal, Verizon, and others, OpenID has created Connect, an apolitical, a-commercial, open-source identity system that anyone can adopt and adapt to their own needs.

The bottom line for OpenID is that a universal identity solution is a necessity for online businesses to keep growing, a goal that’s in everyone’s best interests. “Standards build markets,” OpenID Executive Director Don Thibeau has said. “Standards help the pie grow bigger.” The group is collaborating with the U.S. government to bring its ideas into practice, but the program is still in its infancy, and has little hope of challenging either Facebook’s stranglehold on online identity or the physical omnipresence of the iPhone.

There’s no one answer to where our online identities will come from. The deeper phenomenon, however, is that we’re already moving into a new era of Internet usage in which anonymity is no longer the priority, as it was in the Web’s infancy. Instead, it’s all about restricted application of your identity, showing exactly who you are only to the sites and services you want to give that information to. We should be able to control our digital signatures in the same way that we control our physical fingerprints. That’s not an option, yet. Just keep in mind when you push your thumb (or paw, as the case may be) to the iPhone 5s’s new home button—there’s a lot more at stake than quick unlocking.

Kyle Chayka
Kyle Chayka is a freelance technology and culture writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @chaykak.

More From Kyle Chayka

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.