The FBI maintains a national fingerprint and criminal history database. Its uses include helping to find and convict bad guys, helping to free good guys, and helping you hire a babysitter who doesn’t have a kidnapping charge. It could even be helpful to fighting terrorism. Crime is everywhere. But only seventy million subjects are in the system.

In one weekend Apple sold several million iPhones equipped with a fingerprint scanner – in addition to a camera that is aimed at the user, a few microphones, a GPS receiver, a subscriber identity modules and various communications radios with Internet connectivity.

In a year or so, going by the sales figures of its predecessor and a glance at our web logs, it could be in the hands of well over a hundred million people, and the hands of those they let use their phone to test out the cool fingerprint scanner, from the United States to exotic, lovely, target-rich lands like Pakistan and Yemen.

Now, please tell me why our government, to whom we’ve pretty much given a pass on the mountain of Snowden revelations about how little privacy we have, shouldn’t discretely take advantage of this popular consumer technology to tremendously strengthen the ability to fight crime more prolifically, accurately, quickly and economically?

As to barriers to making this happen, I’ve read the Fourth Amendment, nothing in there about cell phone fingerprint scanners (or Supreme Court cases that I can recall for that matter, though that doesn’t seem to matter anymore). Nothing in there about privacy either – the word is not in the amendment. As for corporations getting the way of the will of the government, well that’s proven to have been a joke this year. This wouldn’t be unchartered territory either — Apple was caught collecting, apparently on their own election, user GPS data in 2011. Nobody made that big a deal about it for too long. This stuff blows over pretty quickly, doesn’t it.

As for consumers, they don’t need to know about it, and when they find out eventually, they’ll make a fuss for a little while and then go right back to buying more iPhones, and Google phones which I understand will soon share the technology (and history of snooping and complying with the government). And if Windows Phone takes off, those too – we’re talking about a company that handed over the Windows source code to the Chinese as a friendly gesture, and zero-day Windows vulnerabilities to the spooks as a courtesy.

As for technological barriers, even without collusion from Apple, we’re talking about a line of phones that has a history of being “jailbroken” just by visiting a website, and the government has the capability, even if you’re using something like Tor, of injecting hidden malicious web code into your browser’s path without your knowing. Love or hate all the aggressive privacy invasiveness of the NSA, you’ve got to admit that it is a bit comforting to have learned that they’re working much harder and smarter for your tax dollars than you realized.

Actually, I guess the question here is what reason do we have to suspect that this isn’t going down already?

Doug Simmons


  1. Mostly useful to monitor people in the USA, as in the majority of the rest of the world iOS devices are far, far less popular and less common. Especially in area’s where it’d be interesting to watch more people.

    Knowing that iOS devices are rather badly secured by nature (all jailbreak methods are a way of breaking security that haven’t been fixed for example) it’s probably child’s play to abuse them remotely or locally.

    WP development has a way to leave gimmicks out for years to come, as they focus on implementing current features perfectly and secure first. Not saying there’s no holes for a NSA like organization to abuse, but their way of developing means people don’t have to fear fingerprint scanners just quite yet on WP devices. On Android devices they probably won’t work at all on the first devices that implements them, as it’ll be a rough and messy implementation, so don’t expect those to be useful either.

  2. Yes, Motorola tried atleast 2 Android Devices with fingerprint scanners already.
    So no, this is not “New” with IOS.
    Been waiting all month for a comment like that.
    And Windows Mobile, was all about the gimmics. Now it has Nothing. And no, it barely worked out of the box.

  3. I was being a bit tongue in cheek in suggesting the world would be a better place with an even greater boom in mass surveillance like this – it just crossed my mind that these phones have become the ideal tool, one I’d go after if I were the NSA, given the revelations recently of their MO. There is not much reason to be confident your thumbprint won’t land on a government database and I sure as hell don’t want my fingerprints on such a database. Apple already denied it, claiming nothing is stored, but they do have a history in this area and so do their competitors – including misleading denials. And again, it seems as though the government wouldn’t need their permission, coercive national security letter or not. The spooks know how to hack. And regarding an organization claiming a system isn’t capable of storing this stuff, how about the DHS with their nude body x-ray scanners.

    I really wouldn’t want my fingerprint on such a database.

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