If your iPhone is stolen, you're pretty much limited to using Apple's GPS-based Find My iPhone to track it down. But if technology Apple appears to be developing comes to fruition, you'll be able to see the fingerprints and images of the thief, which could lead you or the police to track down the device and its captor.
Today (Aug. 25) the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent filed by Apple entitled "Biometric Capture for Unauthorised User Identification." Originally submitted by Apple back in April, the patent explains a technology that would allow Apple's TouchID sensor to record the fingerprints and take photos and or video of users it deems "unauthorized."
According to the patent, iPhones would be triggered to capture this data in a number of ways, starting with the "receipt of one or more instructions from one or more other computing devices." Based on the tools Apple provides today, this could be activated by a tool such as Find my iPhone, which lets users remotely lock and wipe devices.
If that's the case, Apple may want to think about putting a secondary authentication layer on this tool, as right now you only need an Apple ID password to activate Find my iPhone. Nobody wants a nefarious user to be able to steal fingerprints from the device's actual owner.
Other triggers for fingerprint capture and image recording include an excessive number of attempts to unlock a device. Currently, users are limited to 5 Touch ID authentication attempts, and 10 password attempts.
Where would the recorded fingerprint, photos and video go? The patent doesn't explain this beyond "a central server that tracks potential unauthorized usage of the computing device." That could be a server that Apple owns, as it's unlikely Apple would be willing to share all of this potentially personal information (if the "unauthorized user" is actually the device's real owner) with law enforcement.
The legalities of recording and storing this personal information without explicit permission are unknown at this time, and if this technology comes to a future iPhone, expect it to spark the latest chapter of the debate over personal privacy.
As always, since this is technology we're first learning of in a patent, this news should be digested with the warning that it may never come to fruition. Companies file for patents without intent to pursue, just to block others from releasing the same technology.