Samsung was one of the first Android device makers to add a fingerprint sensor to its phones, but it was slower to adopt in-display fingerprint tech. The company finally took the plunge with the Galaxy S10 series earlier this year, following that up with the Note 10 this fall. However, Samsung might end up regretting its choice to go with ultrasonic sensor technology after the recent security snafu. Some analysts now believe Samsung may change course to use optical sensors that are available on other phones.
The move toward slimmer bezels and thinner phones has made it harder to find a place for the fingerprint sensor. Samsung moved it from the front to the back with the Galaxy S8, and then repositioned the sensor to be more accessible on the back with the Galaxy S9. At the same time, some OEMs were ditching the exterior sensor altogether, instead opting for optical scanners under screens.
Rather than going with an optical sensor, which uses light from the display to scan a fingerprint, Samsung went with Qualcomm’s ultrasonic fingerprint scanning tech. The small sensor under the OLED panel bounces sound waves off your finger to map the ridges, which Qualcomm claims is more secure than optical sensors. However, Samsung learned that may not be true the hard way.
Several weeks back, reports began circulating that claimed the Galaxy S10 would unlock for anyone after people had applied a flexible gel screen protector. Many screen protectors block the ultrasonic scanner completely, but others apparently have patterns that look like fingerprint ridges to the scanner. Over time, the phone tries to improve its map of your fingerprints. So, the patterns in the screen protector become embedded in the match. Thus, anyone can unlock the phone because the sensor always sees the same screen protector patterns.
Samsung Securities analyst Lee Jong-wook says that Samsung may have to drop the ultrasonic technology altogether, even after issuing a fix for the security flaw. Samsung won’t talk specifics, but the “fix” may simply have been to stop improving fingerprint recognition over time. That will make the sensor less accurate, and ultrasonic sensors are already slower than a good optical scanner.
Another option may be to just drop the fingerprint scanner altogether. Apple did that several years ago with the iPhone X, and Google did it with the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. Although, Jong-wook points out using optical fingerprint sensors could benefit Samsung financially as it has ties with local Korean companies that could supply the parts.
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