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Apple opens up Touch ID API to third-party app developers


Touch ID Icon

After launching the fingerprint sensor Touch ID in September last year, Apple is now finally opening it up to third party developers in iOS 8, the upcoming version of iOS operating system. The company debuted a new Touch ID API at its ongoing annual Worldwide developer conference (WWDC 2014).

The company mentioned that this API will allow third party app developers to make use of Touch ID mechanism to authenticate users or add an additional security layer to protect user logins and user data. It will also enable users to unlock items from Keychain (Apple’s password management system).

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Anticipating privacy concerns, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi noted that the fingerprint data will continue to remain stored locally inside the A7 chip of the iOS device and will never be exposed to third party developers.

Apple seems to have taken a wait-and-watch approach with Touch ID. At launch, it ruled out providing fingerprint reader authentication option to third party developers and limited the sensor’s capabilities to select use cases like authenticating purchases from iTunes store, App Store and iBooks Store among others.

Once consumers got comfortable with this new mechanism, it is now opening up the sensor to third party developers to offer this authentication on their respective apps. During the keynote yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook claimed that around 83% of users on iPhone 5S are using Touch ID as against the traditional passcode approach. I have also seen and heard several instances, where iPhone 5S users prefer the fingerprint authentication over the password authentication to purchase apps from the App Store, since it’s more convenient.

Mobile Payments: With third party support, one big and obvious use case for Touch ID will be mobile payments. Earlier this year, Apple CEO had also stated plans for a fingerprint based mobile payment system. He said mobile payments is an area that they’ve “been intrigued with and was one of the thoughts behind Touch ID.” Cook added “You can tell by looking at the demographics of our customers and the amount of commerce that goes through iOS devices versus the competition that it’s a big opportunity on the platform”.

We are also reminded of a source-based The Wall Street Journal report from January this year, which had suggested that Apple was laying groundwork for an expanded mobile payment service which includes facilitating payments of physical goods and services from its devices. Apple had also filed a patent for a touchless e-wallet, wherein it had detailed a method to establish a wireless and secure connection between a purchasing device to a point of sale device and then connecting to the back end to conduct a secure commercial transaction.

Remember that Apple also probably has the one of the largest, if not the largest active credit card base in the world right now, with most of its 800 million iTunes accounts having a credit card on file, as of April 2014.

India?

While we are not sure whether Apple will be able to introduce such a system in India, we believe that Indian app developers should be able to make use of this fingerprint authentication in their respective apps, since Apple uses a global payment gateway on which RBI has no jurisdiction. (Correct us if we are wrong).

That being said, Vineet Durani, Director, Windows Phone Business Group at Microsoft had told Medianama last October that Apple is sitting on a time bomb in India with iTunes payment gateway since Indian law insists on dual authentication and its possible that “someone will wake up one day and ask why there is no two-step authentication and possibly cut them off”.

Earlier in February this year, Samsung had also opened up its fingerprint sensor on Galaxy S5 to third party developers by releasing a Pass API as part of the S5’s development kit.

Apple starts allowing Bitcoin & other virtual currency apps: Besides opening up its fingerprint sensor, Apple has also updated its developer guidelines to allow Bitcoin apps in the App Store, provided the currency is legal in that region. It says: “Apps may facilitate transmission of approved virtual currencies provided that they do so in compliance with all state and federal laws for the territories in which the app functions”.

We are not quite sure whether these apps will be allowed in India, since RBI had mentioned that it does not intend to regulate virtual currencies in India. RBI governor Raghuram Rajan however had made it clear that he considers it to be a currency and has expressed his concerns over regulating it. “We had put out a cautionary advisory explaining some of the concerns that investors and users of Bitcoin should have, without in anyway saying anything about our future course of action. As a currency, I do worry a little bit when the underlying fluctuates tremendously,” Rajan said.