Apple has never been the most transparent company. But its $356 million acquisition of a security firm called AuthenTec on Thursday was so secretive it has raised a few eyebrows. While Apple has said nothing about the deal, and AuthenTec is barred from discussing it publicly, according to Dealbook, the rumor mill seems convinced that the acquisition has everything to do with Apple’s mobile wallet.

Michael Bentley/flickr source

AuthenTec makes something it calls Smart Sensors. According to its website, this allows for a more secure swipe unlock system on smartphones by bringing biometrics into the equation. “Swipe sensors use a patented sub-surface technology to read the live layer of skin beneath the skin’s surface where the fingerprint is first formed,” says the website. AuthenTec’s sensors can read through calloused and oily skin, too.

What this allows, however, is a more secure phone overall. That’s important, especially should it have access to your bank account at some point.

Financial Post reports:

The fingerprint swipe technology could be used to unlock, make payments and bolster security on devices like Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch and complement current payment services like iTunes.

Mobile wallets, for all their promise, have been bogged down by security concerns, which largely seem to stem from whether there is sensitive data on the phone or if the phone is just a conduit for the information. This is an important distinction. After all, people lose their phones all the time.

A recent survey of the United States’ seven largest airports by Credant Technologies, and reported by USA Today, found that about 8,000 mobile devices get left behind every year. They ought to check bar bathrooms, and taxi cab seats, too. The annual number of lost or abandoned cellphones is likely staggering. What’s worse is that, according to the same USA Today story, 62 percent of smartphones are not password protected. This is unwise! Unlike your wallet, your phone is in and out of your pocket all day — left on the table while you eat lunch in case a text or email comes through, out on the subway so you can read a book you downloaded, etc — and because of this, they frequently get lost. Without password protection, a stranger could be reading your emails in minutes — or in the future, spending cash with the tap of a button.

While its great for smartphone manufacturers that people treat the products like they’re disposable, it’s bad news for carriers and manufacturers who want people to start using phones like wallets. And here’s where AuthenTec comes in, according to rumors.

Apple launched an app called Passbook in June of this year, and it will be available with the launch of iOS 6 mobile. The app is like Newsstand or Books, in that it is a placeholder for other things, and in this case, Passbook stores the contents of your wallet. Passbook can hold your Amtrak tickets, your Starbucks card, whatever you have in your wallet, but not credit or debit cards. Yet.

The speculation is that Apple, by acquiring the technology that AuthenTec has patented, can build a more secure iPhone capable of becoming the sort of mobile wallet consumers would be comfortable using — even losing.

Whether this is the case or not, Apple isn’t saying. But that’s nothing new.

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