Smartphone Security: For Your Eyes Only

New biometric security is coming to a phone near you…very near.


Fans of the Olympics here in the United States were treated to a great Samsung commercial throughout the broadcast. The commercial stars the genius, multi-award-winning actor Christoph Waltz, showing how Americans can multitask with the amazing new Galaxy Note7. Yes, THAT Galaxy Note7. The 90-second long commercial is a delight to watch, but it must have cost Samsung some serious bucks to produce it. Unfortunately, all those marketing expenses were for nothing, as the infamous Galaxy Note7 will go down in cell phone history as having one of the worst problems of all time (exploding and causing personal and property damage). This eclipses “Bendgate” suffered by Apple with iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and “Antennagate,” starring the iPhone 4. Now we have “Hissgate,” with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus—some phones are making hissing or humming sounds with heavy processor usage.

Back to the commercial, which has Christoph Waltz saying in the last 10 seconds, “It unlocks with my eyes.” This comment seems like it was thrown in at the last minute, and hardly highlights the fact that iris recognition is an up-and-coming biometric authentication method for smartphones. Perhaps that’s for the best at the moment, because holding a phone that might explode up to your face is not the best idea.

Iris recognition is a technology gaining importance in the smartphone market for authentication. It works by shining a near-infrared light at the eye, and then taking an image of the eye to match what has been recorded on the device or in a database. No two iris patterns are the same, even on the same person or in twins. Because the light is used, the authentication even works in the dark. In the Samsung Galaxy Note7, the iris scanner is another camera dedicated to this function, separate from the front and rear main cameras, as shown in the figure below.

Galaxy Note7 Iris Sensor. Source: Semico Research

Sclera scanners authenticate based on the pattern of blood vessels in the sclera (white part) of the eye. A popular software technology for adding this feature to phones comes from EyeVerify. EyeVerify uses a device’s camera to image and match blood vessel patterns in the eye. There are a number of smartphones currently available with iris or sclera scanners. These include:

  • Microsoft Lumia 950 XL
  • Vivo X5Pro
  • Fujitsu Arrows NX F-04G (first phone to have iris recognition)
  • ZTE Grand S3
  • Alcatel Idol 3
  • UMI Iron
  • Galaxy Note7

The Galaxy Note’s iris scanning feature can be used for mobile payments with Samsung Pay v2.3. It can also be used to unlock the phone and access a secure folder on the phone. Samsung Pass allows users to login to websites with a quick iris scan.

Visa recently surveyed European consumers on their interest in using biometric payment authentication, as opposed to passwords and PINs. The Visa Biometric Authentication Study found that over 40% are interested in using biometrics for mobile payments. Fingerprint ID is the most preferred option, followed by iris scanning and facial recognition.

Payment by fingerprint was pioneered by Apple with Apple Pay, which is now accepted at more than 3 million locations in the United States, as well as in apps. Another 8 million locations outside the U.S. accept it; It is set up to work with banks in eight other countries, including Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the U.K. Fingerprint sensors have particularly taken off in China for mobile payments.

“Selfie Pay” is a new trend that different companies are working to make happen. MasterCard is testing payments secured by face recognition and fingerprint scans in the U.S. and the Netherlands. The program is called MasterCard Identity Check. To prove that the user is a live person and not a picture, they have to blink as part of the selfie-video used for authentication.

Semico Research believes biometric authentication is a way for manufacturers to add security to their devices, providing another level of differentiation from their competitors. Companies poised to benefit from fingerprint authentication in mobile devices include Apple, Chengdu Finchos, Cypress Semiconductor, Fingerprint Cards AB, FocalTech, Goodix, Next Biometrics, Qualcomm, Synaptics, and more. IR and image sensor manufacturers stand to benefit from the growth of facial recognition and the different types of authentication involving the eye. Semico’s report, Semico MEMS and Sensor Database Report Update, includes more than 260 different companies and 33 different MEMS and sensor product types. Twenty different target markets are represented in this document, including smartphones, tablets, wearables, robots, and various automotive and medical segments. For more information, contact Rick Vogelei at [email protected].

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