Fingerprint scanners are a tiny bit of tech that has quickly risen to staple status in  the most popular devices. Now that they are not just a concern to heist planners or secret agents, it’s beneficial to learn more about how they work and if they really are as secure as a passcode.

History of the Fingerprint Scanner

In 1969, the FBI asked the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) to develop a system that would automate the long and irksome process of identifying fingerprints. The NBS started to build a machine that would scan the tiny details (called minutiae) of a fingerprint card and compare it against the minutiae of other fingerprints in a long list. The first iteration of this machine didn’t come until 1975, when the FBI funded the NBS’ research. It used a capacitive technique and couldn’t save a useful amount of biographical data, fingerprint and minutiae details of an individual because it cost too much to store the data.

It wasn’t Apple or Samsung that put the first fingerprint scanner in a mobile phone, it was actually Toshiba. The Toshiba G500 was the first smartphone to use a fingerprint scanner to increase security in 2007. In 2009, Acer, LG and Motorola followed with their own phones with fingerprint scanners.

It wasn’t until Apple rebranded fingerprint scanners and called it Touch ID that the tech really became a staple of modern smartphones. In 2012, Apple bought a fingerprint identification company called AuthenTec and in 2013, the iPhone 5S was revealed as the first phone on a major US carrier with a fingerprint scanner.

How It Works

There are actually three different types of fingerprint scanners on the market: Optical scanners, Capacitive scanners, and Ultrasonic scanners. Capacitive scanners are the most commonly used kind of fingerprint scanner today and it is the kind you’ll find on modern smartphones. Tiny circuits collect data about the inner, subdermal layer of your skin. This layer is conductive and when you touch it to the fingerprint scanner, it can measure the ridges and valleys of your fingerprint. Your fingerprint is then “stored” as an algorithm which will be compared to the algorithms of your finger when you try to open your phone again. When they match, you gain access to your phone. Also in case you were wondering, if your finger were to become unattached to your body, you couldn’t use it to access your Touch ID. The scanner only reads the living tissue in the subdermal layer. Dead tissue doesn’t have an electrical charge and wouldn’t be picked up by the scanner.

Enter Touch ID

Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint scanner, first introduced on the iPhone 5S, is a prime example of a Capacitive fingerprint scanner. It’s used as a passcode to open your device or a way to authenticate Apple Pay and purchases through the iTunes store. Third Party apps are even utilizing the technology such as banks.

The Touch ID sensor is made up of a steel capacitive ring, sapphire lens, image sensor, and housing enclave. The capacitive ring acts as a sensor that turns the scanner on when your finger is close, saving precious battery life. The sapphire glass is as thin as a human hair, but it protects the sensitive hardware from damage and scratching.

The biggest concern among users of Touch ID is security. In 2014, a group of hackers posted a Youtube video seemingly proving that they could bypass the iPhone’s touch ID and gain access to the phone. Apple never acknowledged this particular instance, but there are supposedly several ways to trick the system.


Future of Fingerprint Scanner

While it’s not perfect, biometrics are sure to be an integral part of our tech from now on.  Retina scanners and facial recognition are being integrated into popular computers and gaming systems and even Disney World is using fingerprint scanners to pair people with their tickets. A future where we can be sure that our personal information is truly safe and inaccessible to others will most likely be the result of this technology.