Apple’s decision to include a fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5S and presumably the next generation iPad, has been met with a certain level of righteous indignation from privacy advocates. If the phone stores your fingerprint, then it doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out that it could send your fingerprint to any law enforcement or intelligence agency with an appropriate loosely worded subpoena. Fingerprinting is for criminals – I am not one, ergo the government has no right to a record of my fingerprints.
Living in Japan, I have been fingerprinted a few times. I’m fingerprinted by immigration every time I enter the country and I was fingerprinted by police when I went to reclaim a wallet that I had dropped. At the airport, it was about them making sure that I was who I said I was, and at the police station, it was about them having recourse in the event that they had given the wallet to the wrong person.
I’ve heard of foreign-born residents of Japan who decline to be fingerprinted. But really, what’s the point? The last thing that I want to do after a 10-hour flight is get into a civil rights debate. The fact is, Immigration having my fingerprints probably makes me safer. It makes things tougher for someone to illegally enter the country while pretending to be me. So I suck it up, stick my fingers on the sensors and smile. I’ve been here long enough to know when to pick my battles.
Is it possible that the National Security Agency could devise some clever way to download fingerprints from every iPhone 5S on the planet? Of course it is. But what does that really give anyone? The paranoid among us might be concerned about the Them with a capital T having Our fingerprints. It may seem a hop, skip and jump away from being framed for a crime and spending the rest of your life in jail because you answered a question evasively. But that’s fantasy, pure and simple. If you’re going to worry about that, then you ought to be concerned every time you get your hair cut, cut your nails or have a blood test.
It seems the distinction between privacy and secrecy has become a little blurred. In part, perhaps, because of the actions of certain intelligence agencies — the metadata harvesting revelations harmed the public’s trust. We have no trouble with such information being gathered on an individual-by-individual basis, but object to collective surveillance. More interesting is that many people will gladly accept tracking cookies from companies in return for access to free Web services, but balk at the thought of the same information being collected by government agencies.
At this point, most people have willingly given up most of their online privacy. Most people that I know use some form of free webmail service or another, even though they know that the contents of their inbox will be crawled to serve them better-targeted ads. They do it because it’s convenient and because they like they not having to pay for it.
Additionally, pretty much every cell phone on the market has an onboard GPS chip – people buy them in spite of the knowledge that it can easily be used to track them. Again, we’re accepting the risk that our privacy will be invaded for the convenience factor. I spent years navigating the old-fashioned way and you know what? I’ll never go back. And if you’re not already convinced of your phone’s ability to be tracked, just think of all those happy stories on the Internet of people who retrieved their lost or stolen phone with the “Find my iPhone” app. In that way, its ability to be tracked actually adds an element of security.
At this stage, we don’t know how much information Apple has willingly given up to intelligence agencies, but let’s face it – when it comes down to it, most of us sold our privacy a long time ago. If you didn’t worry about it then, you don’t need to worry about using a fingerprint to access your phone. And if you’re still concerned, I may have some good news: the iPhone 5S also accepts nipple prints. So there’s always that choice.