US senator to Apple CEO Tim Cook - new iPhone's fingerprint sensor raises 'substantial privacy questions'

Senator Al Franken
The iPhone 5s

UPDATE: A group called Chaos Computer Club says it has hacked the iPhone 5s' Touch ID fingerprint scanner using a laser printer and PVC glue. CCC has posted a video of its efforts.


EARLIER: Apple's new iPhone 5s features a fingerprint scanner built-into its Home button.

Critics have raved about the speed and accuracy of the sensor, which can be used to unlock your phone with a press of your finger. It's anticipated it will also be used for logging onto apps, and online payments.

But Al Franken, a senior US senator who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, says the technology raises "substantial questions about privacy."

In a letter to Apple (see RAW data below), the Minnesota Democrat asks:

  • whether the fingerprint data stored locally on the mobile phone chip in encrypted form could ever be stolen and converted into digital or visual form that would be usable by hackers or fraudsters
  • whether the iPhone 5S transmits any diagnostic information about the Touch ID system back to Apple or any third parties
  • how well customer fingerprint data will be protected and kept private
  • the exact legal status of such fingerprint data.

Senator Franken has given Apple a month to respond to his queries.

Apple earlier said fingerprints collected by the sensor are stored on the main processor of the iPhone 5S, and not transmitted to the cloud.

The fingerprint scanner is more secure than a four-digit passcode, the company says.

Although people are trying to use everything from gummy bears to warm bear mug prints to hack the sensor (and one security company is offering a $16,000 bounty for the first person to fool it) Apple says it would not be trivial to copy a person's fingerprints, and the technology that the iPhone 5S uses scans beneath the skin, looking for warm, live tissue.

RAW DATA: Senator Al Franken's letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook

Dear Mr. Cook:

I am writing regarding Apple's recent inclusion of a fingerprint reader on the new iPhone 5S. Apple has long been a leading innovator of mobile technology; I myself own an iPhone.

At the same time, while Apple's new fingerprint reader, Touch ID, may improve certain aspects of mobile security, it also raises substantial privacy questions for Apple and for anyone who may use your products. In writing you on this subject, I am seeking to establish a public record of how Apple has addressed these issues internally and in its rollout of this technology to millions of my constituents and other Americans.

Too many people don't protect their smartphones with a password or PIN. I anticipate that Apple's fingerprint reader will in fact make iPhone 5S owners more likely to secure their smartphones. But there are reasons to think that an individual's fingerprint is not "one of the best passwords in the world," as an Apple promotional video suggests.

Passwords are secret and dynamic; fingerprints are public and permanent. If you don't tell anyone your password, no one will know what it is. If someone hacks your password, you can change it--as many times as you want. You can't change your fingerprints. You have only ten of them. And you leave them on everything you touch; they are definitely not a secret. What's more, a password doesn't uniquely identify its owner--a fingerprint does. Let me put it this way: if hackers get a hold of your thumbprint, they could use it to identify and impersonate you for the rest of your life.

It's clear to me that Apple has worked hard to secure this technology and implement it responsibly. The iPhone 5S reportedly stores fingerprint data locally "on the chip" and in an encrypted format. It also blocks third-party apps from accessing Touch ID. Yet important questions remain about how this technology works, Apple's future plans for this technology, and the legal protections that Apple will afford it. I should add that regardless of how carefully Apple implements fingerprint technology, this decision will surely pave the way for its peers and smaller competitors to adopt biometric technology, with varying protections for privacy.

I respectfully request that Apple provide answers to the following questions:

(1) Is it possible to convert locally-stored fingerprint data into a digital or visual format that can be used by third parties?

(2) Is it possible to extract and obtain fingerprint data from an iPhone? If so, can this be done remotely, or with physical access to the device?

(3) In 2011, security researchers discovered that iPhones were saving an unencrypted file containing detailed historical location information on the computers used to back up the device. Will fingerprint data be backed up to a user's computer?

(4) Does the iPhone 5S transmit any diagnostic information about the Touch ID system to Apple or any other party? If so, what information is transmitted?

(5) How exactly do iTunes, iBooks and the App Store interact with Touch ID? What information is collected by those apps from the Touch ID system, and what information is collected by Apple associated with those interactions, including identifiers or hashes related to the fingerprint data?

(6) Does Apple have any plans to allow any third party applications access to the Touch ID system or its fingerprint data?

(7) Can Apple assure its users that it will never share their fingerprint data, along with tools or other information necessary to extract or manipulate the iPhone fingerprint data, with any commercial third party?

(8) Can Apple assure its users that it will never share their fingerprint files, along with tools or other information necessary to extract or manipulate the iPhone fingerprint data, with any government, absent appropriate legal authority and process?

(9) Under American privacy law, law enforcement agencies cannot compel companies to disclose the "contents" of communications without a warrant, and companies cannot share that information with third parties without customer consent. However, the "record[s] or other information pertaining to a subscriber... or customer" can be freely disclosed to any third party without customer consent, and can be disclosed to law enforcement upon issuance of a non-probable cause court order. Moreover, a "subscriber number or identity" can be disclosed to the government with a simple subpoena. See generally 18 U.S.C. » 2702-2703
Does Apple consider fingerprint data to be the "contents" of communications, customer or subscriber records, or a "subscriber number or identity" as defined in the Stored Communications Act?

(10) Under American intelligence law, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can seek an order requiring the production of "any tangible thing[] (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items)" if they are deemed relevant to certain foreign intelligence investigations. See 50 U.S.C. » 1861.

Does Apple consider fingerprint data to be "tangible things" as defined in the USA PATRIOT Act?

(11) Under American intelligence law, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can unilaterally issue a National Security Letter that compels telecommunications providers to disclose "subscriber information" or "electronic communication transactional records in its custody or possession." National Security Letters typically contain a gag order, meaning that recipients cannot disclose that they received the letter. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. » 2709.

Does Apple consider fingerprint data to be "subscriber information" or "electronic communication transactional records" as defined in the Stored Communications Act?
(12) Does Apple believe that users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in fingerprint data they provide to Touch ID?
Thank you for your time and attention to these questions. I ask that Apple answer these questions within a month of receiving this letter.

Al Franken

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6 Comments & Questions

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There's not really much for Senator Franken's constituents to worry about.

Over the past three years, two US companies - Apple and Google - have come to dominate the cellphone market, and have created an entirely new mobile market (tablets).

Fingerprint tech has potential to be abused, but it's also self-regulating. Rivals, politicians, white-hat hackers and media are all watching Apple's every move, and customer-backlash awaits if it oversteps the privacy mark.

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you can always disable the fingerprint scan or buy a different phone, if we stop technolgy to progress then we should not be using mobile phone and credit cards.

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Well exactly - the consumer backlash factor I mentioned above.

But London-to-a-brick, if Apple's Touch ID takes off (and it does seem a lot better than previous attempts at fingerprint scanning), every Android maker will copy it.

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Yeah, I think he should be sending letters to the NSA before worrying too much what Apple is up to ... i.e. his own govt. departments.

After all, it is the NSA has been strong-arming these big tech. companies into handing over screeds of customer data for years under dubious (possibly illegal) circumstances.

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Agreed, its a bit rich to call out Apple for perceived security issues, when the US Govt. has been caught red handed all around the world being much more invasive.

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They have already found a way around it, making it easier to bypass than using normal passwords.

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