Have you heard about the new iPhone 5S? One of Apple's two new phones, it contains a special feature called Touch ID, a fingerprint scanner built right into the home button. That means no more PIN or passcode number to unlock your phone, since your thumbprint will do the trick. How convenient, right?
But for African-Americans, who disproportionately own more smartphones than other groups – although blacks are less likely to use iPhones than devices such as Androids – the new iPhone fingerprint technology might rub some people the wrong way.
How much should we worry about this? Obviously, many have been unsettled by the recent revelations that the National Security Agency, or NSA, has been involved in a massive domestic spying program, working with major telecommunications companies to collect phone and Internet data from customers.
The sobering reality is the feds have been convincing (paying) technology companies to weaken the encryption security of their products and allow the government spies a way in through the back door. It is not so far-fetched to assume that if the government wants to break into this new technology and indict some people in the process, they will find a way. After all, there is a precedent. And some other government or nefarious person or group possibly will attempt as well.
While Apple's products have proven more difficult to compromise than others, their iOS system has been hacked. Moreover, the phone contains the key necessary to unlock the encrypted data, which makes hacking seem inevitable to some experts, given that the iPhone would send an authentication token to Apple's servers, which criminals will attempt to crack open. However, Apple insists that intelligence agencies would be unable to obtain the fingerprint data to create a massive database on iPhone 5S customers.
Conspiracy theorists are having a field day with the new iPhone technology, calling it Big Brother's dream come true – a world in which technology is based on our biometrics – or human characteristics or traits – which can be hacked. This is a bad idea, says USA Today, because a person's biometrics cannot be kept a secret. And there's little you can do if someone steals your fingerprint, because it isn't as if you can get a new one, like changing a password.
Moreover, sources such as the Huffington Post have reported that according to experts, thieves have literally hacked off the fingers of their victims in order to hack their phones and gain access to their data. Pardon the pun.
Meanwhile, as reported in the Washington Post, other experts believe the NSA would have little use for your fingerprint data from the one or two fingers or particular parts of your finger that would serve as your password. Besides, the federal agency maintains prints on 70 million people, so they might already have your prints on file. And if they don't, surely they will find other ways to acquire your prints, or access to your phone for that matter. Don't forget that they are in the spying business.
And for African-Americans and other groups who have a history of being racially profiled, monitored and criminalized, a fingerprinting device such as the iPhone 5S could touch a raw nerve. For example, for some in the black community, fingerprinting represents their introduction to the criminal justice system – a permanent record ruining their prospects for the future.
Certain federally regulated professions such as the securities industry require fingerprinting for employment. The practice of disqualifying people from a job with a misdemeanor or felony record has a disparate impact on African Americans and Latinos, who are more likely to have a record.
In addition, fingerprinting is a weapon to marginalize the poor, such as provisions requiring welfare applicants to submit their fingerprints to the state department of social services. Police use fingerprinting to invade the privacy of nonviolent immigrants, and a federal fingerprinting program is currently being used to deport undocumented immigrants. And to top it off, just last month New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg – Mr. "Stop-and-Frisk" himself – suggested that residents of public housing should be fingerprinted as a crime-fighting tactic. Now that's racial profiling.
Fingerprint scanners are mainstream now, and Apple has assured us of that. Two things are for sure: Government spying is within the realm of the possible. Plus, with more and more consumers accessing this technology, more hackers will look for ways to break it open, regardless of the race of their victims.
(Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.)