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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

New iPhone’s Fingerprint Scanner Prompts Concern and Nervous Laughter Online

Coming just one day after leaked documents suggested that the National Security Agency is able to hack into smartphones, the unveiling of a new iPhone with a built-in fingerprint scanner prompted dismay and mockery online from privacy advocates and journalists.

In an article published Monday by Spiegel Online, the German magazine’s English Web site, Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark reported that documents obtained from the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden boasted of the agency’s ability to capture photographs, location data, contacts and even drafts of text messages from iPhones.

According to the documents reviewed by the Spiegel journalists, the agency’s ability to spy on iPhone users is already so extensive that an internal presentation even compared Steve Jobs with Big Brother, the all-seeing presence in “1984,” George Orwell’s novel about an advanced surveillance state. The presentation included three slides with images from Apple’s famous 1984-themed television commercial and a photograph of the Apple founder, who died in October 2011, holding an iPhone accompanied by a caption that asked: “Who knew in 1984 … that this would be Big Brother … and the zombies would be paying customers?”

After the initial flurry of jokes, Jacob Appelbaum, a developer and spokesman for the Tor project, which allows users to browse the Web anonymously, suggested that the fingerprint scanner could soon make it impossible for political activists to keep information private.

Apple’s developers stressed that the new phone’s fingerprint data would be encrypted and stored locally on the phone, not uploaded to the company’s servers. But, as The Times, The Guardian and ProPublica reported last week, the N.S.A. “has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world,” according to documents from the Snowden archive.