Apple on the Biometric ID Trail Again

While the tech giant, Apple, is essentially a consumer electronics firm that produces stylish smartphones, laptops, desktops and TVs, it is also a big user of biometrics to verify the identity of the user. Even more than that, it has never shied away from following other research areas that involve identity as a service.

Remember the joint initiative by Apple and Google for a Contact Tracing Framework (CTF) to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and public health authorities reduce the spread of the Covid virus (see IDN August 2020)?

Or the glut of patent applications that support the company in its goal of replacing physical secure documents (passports, ID cards, driving licences) with a device (see IDN September 2020)?

Apple continues to invest heavily in identity biometrics and has recently been granted a US patent for uniquely linking a biometric authentication to a person’s digital ID and will most likely form a part of the continuing move toward under-display biometric measurements. The patent covers Face and Touch ID authentication and automates many processes that involve a digital ID in the company’s digital wallet app.

Described in the patent is a method where the owner of a phone, having enrolled in a US state or federal ID program using their government ID and a selfie biometric check, would pick from a list of government ID agencies. At this point, the person would link the identification data on the phone to their state profile.

Following swiftly from the news of the patent being granted, Apple launched its much-anticipated mixed reality headset, Vision Pro, at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC 2023).

Many of the identity verification patents and technologies that Apple had previously worked on were aimed at their suite of devices that allowed for face and finger recognition.

Conversely, Vision Pro is a wearable device that is strapped to the head, has very few finger controls, and poses a completely different set of biometric measurement challenges.

At the moment, Apple is being very guarded as to the exact working of the Optic ID (as it is termed) built-in biometric security on Vision Pro. What we do know is that the system uses LED light to take a 3D scan of your eye for enrolling the iris biometric of the user on Vision Pro’s Secure Enclave. Just like with Apple’s other biometric identification methods, like the Face ID used on the most recent iPhones, and the Touch ID that preceded it, Optic ID data is encrypted, stored in the device›s secure enclave and never has to leave it.

Speaking at WWDC 2023, company officials said that this kind of data is always unique, even when you’re talking about identical twins. So confident is Apple in the security of Optic ID that, in addition to unlocking the headset, the authentication system will also be used with other sensitive and finance-related features like Apple Pay, app store purchases and password autofill.

The use of iris scans as a form of ID verification for border control isn’t new and it is currently used in some of the paid subscription services for expediting passage through airports. But it is not yet in general usage across the global airport network which typically relies on face and/or finger recognition for automated border processing.

Could it be that the combination of iris pattern enrolment, encrypted biometric data storage and Apple’s patent activity to replace physical secure documents with devices is a precursor to further attempts by Apple, and other big tech companies, to encroach deeper into the market for secure identity management?