The Password Your Stuck With

Ultrasonic finger print technology allows phone manufacturers to ditch the home button and bezel. The technology could extend the phone real-estate by 10-20% depending on the maker. But that’s probably not the most important perk.

Screen Real-estate

In the race to maximize screen real-estate Chinese phone manufacturer Vivo introduced Vivo Under Display in June of last year. The technology is based on ultrasonic finger print recognition, an approach that isn’t affected by light, water or smudges (i.e. when your child hands your phone back to you, you can still log-in). Ditching the home button allows Vivo to drop the bezel and extend the screen profile. Increased screen real-estate is a big plus for users.

Below the Surface

Eliminating the phone bezel is an attractive trend but security is the driver. What matters is protecting user information and payment authentication. Current optical Touch-ID is strong and quick, but not infallible.

It’s not Just Payments

In an earlier post I wrote about how the line between fitness device and healthcare device has been blurred. Sensitive health data is being collected and stored on more phones than ever. Everything from EKG to blood pressure, so the importance of securing that information is crucial.

A Change in Technology

Most user phones today rely on a combination of capacitive optical technology. A capacitive sensor detects ridges in the print at 500 pixels per inch resolution. That images is then compared against archived images. Partial prints are compensated for by taking up to 10 different photos of each finger. The potential issue here is that a fake finger print (not an easy task) has 10 different options to match. It only takes one match to unlock the phone. You can Google examples spoofing capacitive (artificial gelatin fingers) and optical (latent prints) technology.

Ultrasonic finger print detection offers security against current spoofing methods. The resolution and approach is a completely different animal. An ultrasonic transducer creates a 3 dimensional profile not a picture. The greater resolution detects nuances in user prints that optical technology can’t. If you’ve gone thru a background check that required fingerprinting like PreCheck, you’ve used ultrasonic finger print ID.

Ultrasonic Piezo Transducers

Piezoelectric transducers are not new. Dr Heiji Kawai first discovered the piezoelectric properties of PVDF in 1969. Piezoelectric transducers work by converting energy into rapid mechanical vibrations creating acoustic waves.  PVDF transducers can be shaped to focus those acoustic waves at very high frequencies. These waves are inaudible to humans. Our ability to detect sound drops off at the 20kHz range.  Our dogs on the other hand, can detect sound up to 40kHz. Keep this in mind the next time your dogs ears perk up and they stare off into space for no apparent reason.

The one password you can never change

With enough resources no single security roadblock is insurmountable. That’s why we can expect phone manufacturers to continue to approach security in layers.  If new ultrasonic finger print detection does one thing really well, it narrows the field of potential villains. But, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be the single authentication solution in the future. Any single solution, facial recognition or print ID, is in theory susceptible. If it’s used as a master password and someone finds a way to spoof it, we have a problem.


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