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3-D Ultrasonic Fingerprint Scanning Could Bolster Smartphone Security

Many smartphone users today rely on fingerprint scanning to unlock their devices, but that technology could soon become more high-tech and secure.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis and Berkeley have found a way to miniaturize the technology used for medical ultrasounds and create a sensor capable of scanning your finger in 3D. They believe it will open the door to improving the security for smartphones and tablets in the future.

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This 3D ultrasonic technology collects imagery of a fingerprint's ridges and valley, and also includes details like the tissue beneath the fingerprint's surface.

The scanner works by embedding arrays of piezoelectric-micromachines ultrasonic transducers, known as PMUTs, inside a chip.

"Ultrasound images are collected in the same way that medical ultrasound is conducted," professor David Horsley at the University of California Davis told Gizmag. "Transducers on the chip's surface emit a pulse of ultrasound, and these same transducers receive echoes returning from the ridges and valleys of your fingerprint's surface."

This technology provides an advantage over Apple's current fingerprint scanner that was introduced with the iPhone5. As Gizmag explains: "But even in the best of cases, the capacitive sensors used in the current generation of portable devices are still subject to serious security leaks. These scanners only image your fingers in two dimensions, and so they are easily fooled by placing a printed image of a fingerprint on top of the sensor."

The idea is that these images can only be spoofed by creating a 3D model of a fingerprint, which is quite difficult to pull off. Today, hackers can lift fingerprints from any glass surface and produce a 2D image, but a 3D image with this level of detail would be much more complicated to replicate.

Furthermore, since the technology can image the dermis beneath a fingerprint's surface, it can help prevent errors in scanning due to dry, wet or oily fingers.

This technology is the latest in a wave of biometrics being used for authentication. In the past, passwords were the most secure measure, but today, new methods of fingerprint scanning, voice recognition and facial recognition are also being explored.

While we wait to see what kind of technology the future will bring, one thing's for sure: Researchers will continue to find new ways to make it more difficult and perhaps someday, nearly impossible, for hackers looking for ways to compromise the information in your smartphone.

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