Touch ID: The future of the Mac

Security is so important that police chiefs worldwide are hassling Apple [AAPL] to make iPhones theft-proof -- but why stop there? It won't. Touch ID will eventually protect Macs.

Don't steal this

In case you've been living under a stone or exist in some parallel universe in which the Android ecosystem is actually secure, you'll know about Touch ID, Apple's fingerprint authentication system for the iPhone 5S. The system lets you set up to five people's prints as authentication for your phone. If an authorized person isn't using the device, the device won't work.

In conjunction with Find My iPhone, Touch ID means thieves will soon learn that there's little point taking someone's iPhone, as the resale value will be low and the person they sell their stolen goods to will already know there's a good chance they'll be caught if they ever switch on the device.

Those in the thieving business will swiftly begin to target device's from other manufacturers, probably Samsung (any word yet on that presidential pardon the Korean firm and its acolytes hoped for? Thought not). Thieves aren't stupid, they're just dishonest, they know Android doesn't offer Apple's level of base system protection. Please don't shoot the messenger for saying this, it's just logical that if one platform becomes more secure, attention will shift to less secure devices.

Touch ID is limited in its deployment today - it's only available on the iPhone 5S -- but as the cost of components (principally the sapphire crystal the system relies on) shrinks, Apple will be in position to put its authentication system into more devices.  The next likely Apple products to benefit from the protection offered by Touch ID are likely to be iPads.

The big issue

Apple is serious about mobile device security. A recently published Apple patent described an antitheft mechanism that prevents your "electronic device" from recharging if unauthorized use is suspected.

"When unauthorized use of a device is suspected, a recharging mechanism (e.g., recharge-circuit) of the device is disabled in order to guard against extended unauthorized use of the device. The recharging mechanism normally recharges the rechargeable-power-supply that powers the device. Consequently, normal use and enjoyment of the device can be significantly reduced by disabling the rechager. Moreover, for devices that are mainly powered by a rechargeable-power-supply (e.g., music players, phones, Personal Digital Assistants), disabling the recharger effectively renders the device inoperable when the power of the main power-supply has run out. As such, disabling the recharger should serve as a deterrent to theft."

In other words, Apple's response to the iPhone/iPad theft scourge is to make systems that tell you where they are, can send photos of their robber, can be erased remotely, can only be used with an authorized fingerprint and which cannot be recharged at all if the system suspects it has been compromised. That should put people off stealing them.

So why stop there?

Back to the Mac

Apple is demonstrably willing to bring iOS features to the Mac if they make sense -- Find My iPhone is now available as Find My Mac, for example. It makes perfect sense (given component cost and availability) to introduce Touch ID on Macs as additional protection. Think how valuable this might be to MacBook Air or Pro users; let alone the peace of mind iMac and Mac Pro users would then enjoy.

It seems logical Apple would place the Touch ID sensor on the Power button on Macs. The computer would automatically enter Guest account mode if an authorized user was not identified. Thieves will find it too challenging to install a fresh OS in order to sell their stolen Mac, and Find My Mac would find the system the next time it was bought online. 

There are potential implications beyond system security -- Touch ID on a Mac could also be used for online banking, online transactions and remote access to your home or office Macs using other systems that carry a Touch ID scanner.

There's also a potential for software developers eager to prevent piracy, or the slightly unattractive potential for Apple to further control the applications you are enabled to install on your Mac, "for your protection", potentially limiting your installations only to software acquired via the Mac App Store.

Despite those potential manifestations, Touch ID for Macs makes sense if only as an additional layer of security for Apple users.

When it does appear it will be another shining example of how Apple's iterative approach innovates across its platforms, such innovation takes time.

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