Mergers, tech giants and massive opportunity defines space
Mobile payments saw a major push in 2012 thanks largely to increasing NFC adoption, growing interest in contactless payments and mobile wallet initiatives like Isis. With the addition of high-value functionalities, however, comes the need for secure and reliable mobile authentication.
Mobile contactless functionality is certainly in our future – in many ways it’s already here – but the technology has been met with skepticism in some circles due to weaknesses in authentication and identity verification. PINs and passwords simply are not enough as mobile becomes the next target for hackers.
Many believe the answer will be found in the marriage of biometrics and mobile devices. But which biometric modality should be used? Walter Hamilton, executive director at the International Biometrics & Identification Association, says there are several frontrunners.
Fingerprints have been a staple of biometrics from the beginning and though flashier modalities have surfaced, the fingerprint continues to hit above its weight class.
“Fingerprint, iris, and facial recognition are the ‘Big 3’, with fingerprint being the most common and popular modality,” says Hamilton. “They are quick, reliable, easy to use, highly accurate and are not adversely affected by environmental conditions.”
Giving mobile the finger
Most mobile devices already contain the audio and camera components required to authenticate voiceprint and facial recognition. Still many experts feel fingerprint is the best way tool for mobile security because it can offer an added level of verification and consent.
The challenge is that today few devices possess fingerprint scanner hardware.
“Durability against shock, vibration and impacts that may affect the sensor surface are serious concerns,” explains Hamilton. “Implementations need to be small because real estate and power consumption in the mobile platform are at a premium.”
Sebastien Taveau, chief technology officer with California-based fingerprint sensor manufacturer Validity, echoes this sentiment. “It must be small enough that it doesn’t take up too much space, doesn’t use too many processing cycles and doesn’t add friction to consumer interaction with the device.”
“Technology is like a diet,” says Taveau. “It is always easier to gain weight than drop it – the same holds true for technology, it’s hard to shrink it down to something that’s consumer-acceptable.”
AuthenTec: The Apple of the market’s eye
Prior to 2012, the market resembled something of a two horse race between the Melbourne, Fla.-based AuthenTec and San Francisco’s UPEK. The competition saw the market split between two solutions: AuthenTec’s area sensor and UPEK’s swipe sensor.
An area sensor is a silicon-based scanner that did not use optical characteristics; rather it required the use of a light source, which proved to be heavy on power consumption – a concern for mobile implementation. With this method, because the silicon is the sensor, a finger has to be physically applied to its surface to conduct the authentication.
Swipe sensors like that provided by UPEK use a silicon scanner shaped like a thin bar of sensor pixels. This method sees the user swipe their finger over the bar while the sensor takes successive images of the finger and reconstructs them using a complex algorithm.
This competition between UPEK and AuthenTec continued until 2010 when the companies merged under the AuthenTec name, bringing the two most viable fingerprint scanner solutions under one roof.
The merger and the subsequent ripples it sent changed the fingerprint sensor landscape and captured the attention of mobile device giant Samsung, followed shortly by Apple.
Apple bought AuthenTec in July of 2012, a move that at $356 million ranks it among the most expensive acquisitions Apple has made to date.
While Apple’s purchase of AuthenTec was certainly driven by the desire to possess the fingerprint scanner technology, insiders suggest it was just as much about keeping the technology out of Samsung’s hands.
Prohibiting Samsung from incorporating AuthenTec sensors in its devices was certainly a blow to mobile fingerprint implementation, but as one door closes another often opens.
A new market structure
With AuthenTec within Apple, the fingerprint scanner market has entered something of a Renaissance. Companies like Validity and Sweden-based Fingerprint Cards AB are gaining a foothold and are bringing with them new solutions.
“Following the acquisition, suddenly everyone wanted to move at the same time,” explains Taveau. It has allowed Validity to reach the rest of market, he explains, beginning with PCs and expanding to other consumer electronics.
Apple’s involvement not only created an opportunity for newcomers to grab market share, its high profile presence is also elevating consumer awareness of fingerprint technology.
“Apple’s acquisition of Authentec has certainly put focus on biometrics and opened up new opportunities in the biometric market,” says Alexander Blomquist, regional sales director with Fingerprint Cards AB.