Why BlackBerry fingerprint scanning could be an issue

BlackBerry smartphones are well-known for their impressive security safeguards, built into both Research In Motion’s (RIM) handheld software that actually runs on the devices and its associated BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) corporate mail server. But if a recently filed USPTO patent application is any indicator of what’s to come, RIM just may be adding another key security feature to some of its smartphones: a fingerprint scanner built into the new BlackBerry “trackpad.”

At first, the idea sounds like a great one–and it certainly could prove to be a valued addition to RIM’s BlackBerry product line. But a little red flag popped up in my head as soon as heard about the idea. I’ll get to why soon enough, but first, here’s some additional information on the recently-filed patent application…errr, extension.

A patent application titled “Apparatus and method of input and finger print recognition on a handheld electronic device” was initially filed by RIM in May 2004, and a related patent was granted years later in April 2009, according to United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) filings. So RIM has clearly been toying with the idea of working fingerprint-scanning into the BlackBerry for some time.

The new application (#10849928) appears to be a “continuation” of this related patent, and it introduces a new, touch-pad-based method of fingerprint scanning.

From the patent text:


“This patent application relates to mobile communication techniques in general, and to an apparatus and method of input and finger print recognition on a handheld electronic device in particular.


“Touch pads are known techniques of computer input. A touch pad has a flat surface capable of producing a signal when the flat surface is touched with a finger.

“Finger print recognition is a known technique of biometric systems, utilized for recognizing the identity of a person based on physiological characteristics.

“Both techniques are typically not provided simultaneously in handheld electronic devices. Although touch pads and finger print devices are common, touch pads may have very low resolution, and may use an interpretive algorithm to increase the apparent resolution, whereas finger print devices may have very high resolution. The limited surface area of a handheld electronic device may exclude the use of both touch pads and fingerprint devices simultaneously.”

What’s even more convincing evidence that BlackBerrys may soon get touchpad fingerprint-scanning is the fact that RIM recently introduced new APIs within some of its latest BlackBerry JDE development toolsets for “fingerprint biometric data.”

So what does this mean to IT smartphone administrators and corporate BlackBerry users? Well, users would no longer have to manually enter passwords to unlock their secured devices, which would no doubt be convenient. And IT administrators could take comfort in knowing those corporate devices were better protected via biometric security instead of mere passwords, which can be fairly simple to crack. And using biometrics might even help corporations meet certain compliance requirements.

The problem: My experience with fingerprint readers and associated technologies has taught me that though the concept sounds great in theory, it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, my ThinkPad laptop has a built-in fingerprint scanner that I used to unlock my computer for about six months. And it actually worked quite well…most of the time.

I made sure I got the best scan I could when first setting it up and saving my fingerprint image. Every three or four times I tried to login to my machine, I’d have to run my finger over the scanner repeatedly because it didn’t “take” the first or second times. But mostly, I got used to the minor inconvenience. And I liked not having to remember lengthy passwords or change them every couple of months due to IT policies.

But one day, a colleague showed up at my desk and informed me that she would be removing the fingerprint reader software from my machine, because it was “causing problems.” I immediately inquired as to why, and I was informed that so many users were locking themselves out of their machines after too many failed scan attempts that IT was spending significant time getting them all back in. In other words, my IT department decided that fingerprint scanning was more of a burden than it was a boon.

The main problem there, I think, was that my colleagues very likely captured a poor or mediocre quality image the first time they scanned their fingerprints, so they had trouble matching up with that image each time they scanned their fingers to access PCs. And I can just see them getting more and more frustrated after each scan-attempt, sliding their digits over the scanner faster and faster each time and reducing the likelihood of getting a proper scan.

I’m not saying that RIM couldn’t or hasn’t come up with or licensed some fingerprint-scanning tech that is easier to use and more accurate. What I am saying is that if RIM doesn’t or hasn’t done so, fingerprint scanning on BlackBerrys could prove to be more trouble than it’s worth, much like it did in the example above.

Such fingerprint-scanning tech probably wouldn’t find its way to all of RIM’s devices anyway, since such a high-level of security isn’t likely required–or even desired–by the average consumer BlackBerry user. So perhaps only devices aimed specifically at corporate workers in sensitive environments or who work with confidence information would feature the finger-scanners.

It seems to me that the “speed-of-scan,” or the time it takes to actually scan a finger and process the information, would be key here. And I’m not sure RIM’s less-than-snappy OS is very well-suited for the task. But it’s hard to say, since RIM could be using a new and improved technology that addresses these concerns.

Bottom line: A built-in trackpad fingerprint-scanner for BlackBerry sounds like a great idea from a security perspective. But in reality, the technology could translate into just another IT headache.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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