The Messy History of Tech's Finger-Chopping Fears

Congratulations to security firm Lookout, which got a number of websites to worry about thieves cutting off fingers to access fingerprint-protected iPhones. They're not the first to offer the concern.

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Congratulations to Marc Rogers of the security firm Lookout, who managed to get half a dozen websites to carry his weird quote about thieves cutting off fingers to access new iPhones protected with a fingerprint scanner. Turning a long-standing fear into a marketing opportunity is as American as apple pie — but Rogers isn't the first to offer the concern.

This is a dumb idea, as Will Oremus notes at Slate, in the least Slatepitch-y article in history. "Is it possible that some deranged nut might chop off your fingers in order to gain access to your iPhone?" Oremus writes. "Sure … It’s also possible that he might chop off your arm to steal your purse, chop off your legs to steal your Nikes, or chop off your head in order to grab your necklace." It is also possible that if presented with the threat of losing a finger or turning off fingerprint sign-ins, rational people might choose the latter.

But that didn't stop the Huffington Post UK and The Independent and The Mirror and Metro and The Guardian UK from running with the story. Given that those are all British publications, maybe the rampant fear of knife crime played some role, who knows.

What we do know is that fears about amputation in order to access biometrically-protected devices are not new. In May 1998, after Science News ran a story about the possibility of using physical identifiers as a way of accessing an ATM ("Private Eyes"), Skylar Barclay Sudderth of Brownwood, Texas, wrote in, offering apparently one of the first such worries.

If automatic teller machines (ATMs) someday permit presentation of a body part for authentication purposes, then ruthless muggers will no longer be content with taking your wallet, watch, and jewelry—they’ll cut off your finger or rip out your eyeball in order to fool the fingerprint analyzer or retinal scanner and gain complete access to your bank account.

Her recommended alternative? Personal identification numbers — the security system Apple uses on its phones now.

In March 2005, the BBC reported on an incident suggesting that Skylar's fears were coming true. Thugs in Malaysia stole a car requiring the driver's fingerprint. Meaning they had to steal the finger, too.

The attackers forced Mr Kumaran to put his finger on the security panel to start the vehicle, bundled him into the back seat and drove off.

But having stripped the car, the thieves became frustrated when they wanted to restart it. They found they again could not bypass the immobiliser, which needs the owner's fingerprint to disarm it.

They stripped Mr Kumaran naked and left him by the side of the road - but not before cutting off the end of his index finger with a machete.

In 2007, concern about such immorality nixed fingerprint scanners at Parliament, according to the always-questionable Daily Mail.

Plans to use fingerprint scanners to control entry to the Commons have been abandoned over fears that terrorists could cut off an MP's finger to get inside.

Security advisers have warned that a suicide bomber would have no compunction about removing a politician's finger to fool scanners.

In an effort to counter car thieves and terrorists with a similar lack of qualms, scientists invented systems requiring the finger be attached to a living person — though those are obviously too complex to fit in the base of an iPhone. Such systems will not yet be in place by the time the documentary Minority Report becomes reality. (Scroll down.)

What we are more concerned about — and this is based on a lot of scientific evidence that we can't get into right now — is that criminals will in fact sever the heads of iPhone owners, lugging the ghoulish trophies around in bowling ball bags until they need to use the phone. Why they need the heads isn't clear, but we've reached out to some experts that we're confident can come up with a reason.

Update, Thursday: Lookout has issued a statement.

Lookout do not believe that thieves chopping off fingers to gain access to phones is a valid risk with fingerprint technology. Lookout believes that fingerprint technology is full of exciting promise for consumers and mobile security: if implemented correctly, consumers will have a convenient way to secure their device and fingerprint technology has the potential to usher in a new generation of secure mobile services. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.