Goodbye Passwords? Apple Patents Gestural Access Control
While speculation has swirled about the possibility of a fingerprint reader on an upcoming iPhone rather than security via a password, there is now confirmation that Apple has been moving on another front. On Tuesday, the technology giant was awarded a patent for accessing levels of apps, device services and functions using gestures.
The patent, No. 8,528,072, is entitled "Method, apparatus and system for access mode control of a device," and it was first filed in 2010. It describes "access input" in which the input is a gesture, and succeeding access inputs unlock successive levels. One of the uses could be the implementation of user accounts on, say, an iPad, so that different family members might have different sets of icons, profiles and apps.
Using a gesture for unlocking could make it easier for a small child, or anyone tired of remembering passcodes, to enter his own space. The gesture could determine which hardware functions are available, in addition to which apps or services, so that, for instance, a child might not be able to print endlessly.
Currently, the iOS operating system does afford some basic level of access control, where a user needs to enter a password to unlock his mobile device. A user can configure a device so that certain apps, such as Siri or Reply with Message, are available even if the password has not been entered and the device is locked.
While gestures are described as the input, a main thrust of the patent is the concurrent locking or unlocking of functions or apps at levels. For instance, the first access level might make email available but keep everything else locked, while the next access level could lock email but make contacts and the browser available. Other possibilities include unlocking and then locking different functions within one application at each level.
Gestures could include drawing alphanumeric figures, or geometric figures like a circle, or some combination. The combination might be related to the level being opened, so that, for example, a rectangle and the letter E could open email. Gestures can be input not only through a touchscreen or a keypad, but also through a keyboard, a mouse, a stylus or even voice recognition.
As users have to juggle long lists of usernames and passwords throughout a normal day and across a variety of devices, the appeal of non-password security is growing. Evidence has been mounting that Apple is taking more than a casual interest in the field, for ease-of-use possibilities as well as competitive positioning.
A beta version of iOS 7, released in July to developers, contained code for biometric scanning that handled fingerprint recognition from a left or right thumb. The code also included a tutorial section with a photo of a person holding the iPhone with the right hand "while touching the Home button with the thumb."
A year ago, Apple spent more than a third of a billion dollars to buy a company called AuthenTec, which provided fingerprint sensor and identity management technology for mobile devices, as well as for governments and networking companies.
In fall of 2012, Apple received a patent for a biometric unlocking mechanism that is hidden until a user conducts an action, such as pushing a Home button. The scanner could be used for fingerprints, face recognition, or eye scanning, and could be employed as a second factor in two-factor authentication.