Why Apple should add Touch ID to its Macs

Password security is the obvious reason, but Apple Pay is the better reason

Touch ID Home button

When Apple announces new iPad models later this week, everyone expects they'll include the same Touch ID sensor that debuted in the iPhone 5s a year ago. Also this week, when Apple announces new Mac models, the prevalent leaks suggest a 27-inch iMac with a Retina display the MacBooks and iPads have enjoyed for some time, but at an unheard-of size.

But I'm hoping that Apple announces the integration of the Touch ID sensor across its entire computing product line, not only expanding its use to iPads but also to Macs and its Thunderbolt Displays.

If you use Touch ID on an iPhone, you know how quickly you miss it on other devices. It's a very convenient way to enter your password, and it makes long, complex passwords easy to use -- a security boost that's good for everyone. (You still have to remember the password, though, as it is required to run a powered-down device, and to update your fingerprints.)

Imagine how much easier that would make it for shared Macs, whether at home or at work: A thumbprint sensor on the display, front bezel, or perhaps next to the trackpad would identify who is signing in, and open the Mac to their user account. A parent's, boss's, or IT admin's fingerprint could authorize use of administrator privileges while the Mac is running.

But password security on the Mac is not the Touch ID game-changer. But Apple Pay is.

Touch ID acts a password shortcut to unlock your sleeping iPhone, as well as to validate an iTunes purchase from your iPhone (if you enable either or both, of course). It'll soon hit the iPad, most likely. But on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Touch ID can also trigger and help validate an Apple Pay transaction as if it were a physical "card present" swipe at a compatible sales terminal.

On-premises retailer uses of Apple Pay get the most attention, but the system is also designed to secure e-commerce transitions from mobile apps, acting as an additional confirmation the purchaser is the actual user.

Now imagine if Apple took the next step and used a Touch ID on a Mac, iPad, or iPhone to validate Web purchases. The devices would use the same hardware protections as the iPhone 6 -- the Secure Element chip that is the guaranteed unique identifier for that device, plus the Touch ID chip that likewise stores fingerprint algorithms where apps can't get to them -- and some second authentication as new devices are added to the user's keychain, as iCloud Keychain now works.

My Mac would know it's me and would use the Apple Pay system to separately send the one-time transaction credentials and my own credentials to the retailer and card processor to be reconciled on the back end, exactly as Apple Pay works in the iPhone 6.

Suddenly, purchases from Apple devices would be as secure as if they came from a sales terminal, eliminating a lot of fraud, and rendering the theft of debit and credit card numbers -- even passwords -- much less of a concern. When you realize that tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of millions of customer credit card information has been stolen in the last year from high-profile break-ins at Target, Home Depot, Kmart, Michaels, Neiman Marcus, UPS, Goodwill, P.F. Chang's, Dairy Queen, Sally's Beauty Supply, and JP Morgan Chase, how could the industry say no? I bet it wouldn't.

Even as Apple extends some Touch ID (read-only) access to mobile apps so they can use it as a second authentication factor on iPhones, the inclusion of Touch ID on Macs (and iPads) would be a big step in helping companies better secure work-at-home Macs, BYOD iPads and iPhones, and of course corporate-issued Apple gear.

As my colleague Roger A. Grimes has written, biometrics is no substitute for effective passwords. But Apple's system is not about substituting fingerprints for passwords -- it's about building multiple layers of authentication on both the front end and back end. In other words, it's multifactor authentication through trusted channels.

Apple has the technology, as well as the ecosystem that would encourage fast adoption. I hope Apple sees it the same way.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.