Biometric scanning for smartphones ready for prime time

The recent Galaxy Note7 launch is likely to see widespread use of iris recognition for smartphones

Iris recognition was thrust into the limelight last week with the launch of Samsung's new flagship smartphone Galaxy Note7.

The move by Samsung to let users unlock the Note7 by just staring into the phone's camera also signalled accelerated development in the biometric space to meet rising demand for better handset security.

Analysts said there are more uses for the high-tech security measure today.

"Fingerprint scanning is not just used for unlocking the phone but also for authenticating purchases online and at physical counters with e-wallet services like Apple Pay," said Mr Clement Teo, principal analyst at market research firm Ovum.

Fingerprint sensors were first introduced in phones in 2011 with Motorola Mobility's Atrix 4G. But it was Apple which made fingerprint sensing more commonplace with the iPhone 6s models.

Mr Justin Denison, Samsung’s senior vice-president of product strategy, talking about Galaxy Note7’s iris-recognition technology at the Samsung Unpacked event in New York City. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Similarly, Samsung is not the first company to introduce an iris scanner on a smartphone - it was Fujitsu in March last year.

But Samsung is expected to drive the popularity of iris scanning through uses such as payment authentication with its e-wallet service Samsung Pay.

Mr Anmol Singh, principal research analyst at market research firm Gartner, said that iris recognition is more stable than fingerprint scanning.

"An iris is less susceptible to external damage," he said.

According to Gartner, at least 57 per cent of smartphones sold worldwide will support biometric security technologies by 2019.

Another report from Juniper Research also projected that 770 million biometric authentication apps will be downloaded in 2019, more than a 100-fold increase from the six million downloaded last year.

The tipping point will be when cheaper phones get the technology too. Said Ovum's Mr Teo: "The technology will take off when it is available in less expensive handsets."

Smartphones with biometric-authentication technologies tend to be high-end models for now.

There is room for further development to bring down the cost of biometric implementation in phones as the technology matures, said Mr Nick Savvides, security evangelist at cyber-security firm Symantec.

The jury is still out on whether the future belongs to fingerprint or iris scanning.

Ms Kiranjeet Kaur, market research firm IDC's research manager, said the option that is easiest and most convenient to use will be the most widely adopted.

"Biometric scanning on the smartphone is as much about convenience as it is about security," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Biometric scanning for smartphones ready for prime time'. Print Edition | Subscribe