The VICE Channels

    The iPhone's Fingerprint Scanner Has Shady Government Ties, Anonymous Says

    Written by

    Patrick McGuire

    Photo via Apple

    Yesterday, just as the US government shut itself down and put 800,000 people temporarily out of work, the hacktivist group Anonymous—who the FBI wrongly declared to be dead in August—released a video statement with an accompanying Pastebin document claiming that there are definitive links between AuthenTec, the company that developed the iPhone 5S’s fingerprint scanner, and the US government.

    Anonymous has drawn the connections between AuthenTec and the US government by first pointing out that the company is a spin-off of the Harris corporation. Harris pulls in $6 billion dollars of revenue yearly and, according to its Wikipedia page, the company “produces wireless equipment, electronic systems, and both terrestrial and spaceborne antennas for use in the government, defense, and commercial sectors.” Judging from Harris’ own press releases, which Anonymous linked to in its Pastebin release, the firm makes a ton of money from US government contracts. Plus, AuthenTec is run by dudes like Frederick Jorgensen, who came from the Raytheon Corporation—a private defense contractor.

    The connections between AuthenTec and the US government don’t end there. As Anonymous points out, in 2010 AuthenTec named Robert E. Grady as the chairman of the biometrics-loving company. Just in case you’re playing with an incomplete deck of Military-Industrial Complex trading cards, ol’ Grady served in George H. W. Bush’s White House.

    After that, he was the managing partner and chairman of Carlyle Venture Partners—a division of the Carlyle Group. What does that mean? Well, the Carlyle Group invested $910 million into Booz Allen—the private intelligence firm that Edward Snowden worked for. The Snowden connection is one that has obviously put Carlyle, and Booz Allen's influence over the government, into question.

    Anyway, Robert E. Grady only stuck around at AuthenTec for about six months before resigning—and things were looking bleak for the company at that point. It wasn’t long after that AuthenTec started flirting with the idea of selling Apple its technology, but of course Apple just decided to buy AuthenTec outright for $356M, much to the dismay of AuthenTec’s shareholders who sued Apple almost immediately. In response, the US District Court told them to fuck off and gave Apple a high-five—and now a new wave of fingerprint scanning iPhones are helping to set sales records for Apple.

    So it’s pretty clear that AuthenTec’s connections to elite government and military circles are real—and to anyone who has been following the NSA leaks of 2013, it’s obvious that there is a pervasive attitude within the NSA itself to collect any and all data it can. To really drive that point home, Anonymous refers to documents stolen from ManTech, yet another private security firm, that describe the Department of Defense’s “urgent” requirement to develop a “multi-functional, multi-domain… matching system to achieve identity dominance” in the field of biometrics.

    The group also links to a FBI document describing a plan to build a “Next Generation Identification” system that would develop databases of fingerprints as well as scars and tattoos to improve facial recognition. Among the bureau's targets for a watch list are murderers, kidnappers, and those who harbor illegal immigrants.

    Biometric security looks likely to be the next big wave in consumer tech, and naturally that means it will end up being the target of authorities. There is already evidence that the US has sought the biometric data of UN Security Council representatives and that the NYPD took advantage of iris scanning when detaining Occupy Wall Street protestors. 

    All of these connections were articulated by Anonymous yesterday. The group ended its transmission as follows:

    the launch of Apple's iPhone5S the surveillance world has gone from Biometric creep into an all-out assault on everything they can grab on our bodies. What will you do to protect yourself and the ones you love.

    While the FBI has made great efforts to shut down Anonymous, Anonymous will not be silenced. Anonymous will continue to fulfill our appointed duty to inform citizens of the world of governmental and corporate corruption. Anonymous will continue to fight for the ideal of a free and uncorrupted Internet and for a world without megastalkers.

    This kind of connection making—some may even call it journalism—within the security and intelligence industry is exactly what Barrett Brown was doing before he fell into a deep legal entanglement where he is now forbidden from speaking to the media and may end up with a century-long prison sentence. It’s no wonder then, that Anonymous thanks and references Barrett’s research Wiki, ProjectPM, explicitly in its press release.

    But what does it really matter that AuthenTec has government connections? Isn’t that par for the course when one runs a multi-billion dollar security firm? Just because someone works for the government doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is a super-evil surveillance obsessive whose whole life’s work it is to spy on innocent people at all times. It’s hard to completely follow Anonymous’ doomsday drumming into wanting to dunk every iPhone 5S one sees into a pool of water.

    So even with all of these links, one still needs to make a bit of a leap to say that the NSA will literally collect the fingerprint data off of every iPhone 5S—though it’s not hard to believe that the agencies would want to. Anonymous has stated that it’s “immaterial” whether the feds are doing this or not because ultimately, by Apple popping a fingerprint scanner into its sexy gold phone—which is so coveted that extremely clever hucksters in China are selling gold stickers to slap on non-gold iPhone 5s—people are going to get used to biometrics being a part of their daily life. This is obviously great news for the biometrics industry, but it has somewhat troubling implications for consumers.

    For one, biometric security devices aren't necessarily the password-replacers they've been cracked up to be. As Dustin Kirkland explained in a great blog post yesterday, fingerprints are better used like usernames, not passwords. For one, that shiny new iPhone 5S of yours is going to end up covered in your fingerprints, isn't it? While the scanner is convenient, and the average snoop isn't going to duplicate your fingerprints, it's not exactly failsafe, a point that consumers aren't always informed of.

    Fingerprint, retina, and facial scanners have always existed in pockets of the military and other specialized industries, but they are now in the hands of millions of consumers thanks to the iPhone 5S. Now that it’s cool to have your fingerprint scanned, you can bet that all sorts of biometric scanners will start popping up in our lives. Is a world where you start your car and withdraw money from your bank account using only your face, eyeball, and fingerprint so far off? Likely not.

    When and if that happens, imagine what kind of irrefutably distinct biometric trail you will leave behind wherever you go. What will that mean for the future of surveillance? Protesters and dissenting civilians will be just as easy to find as rapists and terrorists—and if the NSA develops a similar surveillance machine to something like PRISM that feeds off of biometric trails rather than text and voice, it’s game over for privacy. These possibilities are quite dizzying, but I suppose that’s our new world.