I recently showed my new Google Pixel 6a smartphone to my friend Pavlo. The phone was locked when I gave it to him. Then, suddenly, he was staring at my home screen. He had put his finger on the part of the screen where the phone searches for fingerprints and unlocked the phone.
I gasped. My heartbeat accelerated.
“Pavl!” I said. “That’s not what should happen.” He pressed the power button to lock the phone and tried to unlock it a second time. It worked. My eyes bulged. He did it again and again and surprised our friends in the neighborhood. Luckily no one else was able to unlock my phone.
I searched online and found that other people have been experiencing similar issues since the phone became available last month. Some people were able to unlock the Pixel 6a using fingers that they didn’t register in the device’s settings. And two YouTube channels showed that people could unlock a Pixel 6a even if their fingerprints weren’t stored in the phone.
As a rule, both consumers and corporate employees want to keep what’s on their devices private. People will expect that their devices will not inadvertently give access to strangers or even friends or family members. That means this problem isn’t the best for Google’s burgeoning Pixel line of smartphones that rival Apple’s iPhones and countless Android phones.
Google shipped 800,000 smartphones to the US in the second quarter, an increase of about 230% year-on-year, according to estimates released Monday by tech industry research group Canalys. Apple, Samsung, Motorola and TCL have all shipped more phones in North America than Google, Canalys said.
The $449 Pixel 6a includes the same Google Tensor chip as the 2021 Pixel 6, which Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, told analysts in April it’s “the fastest-selling Pixel ever.”
The A-line of Pixel phones like the Pixel 6a aims to deliver similar technology to Google’s flagship models at a lower price point.
People can set up the Pixel 6a without enabling the fingerprint unlock feature, but it’s still a popular passcode alternative.
“The under-display fingerprint sensor in Pixel 6a has been tested to meet the industry standard for security where the probability of an unauthenticated fingerprint match is 1 in 50,000 attempts,” a Google spokesperson told CNBC in an email. “We are constantly making improvements to our fingerprint performance, stability and reliability, and users should ensure they are running the latest version of Android 13.”
Apple says on its website that the chance of two separate fingerprints matching a single finger enrolled in its Touch ID technology is one in 50,000. In comparison, the chance of correctly guessing a person’s four-digit passcode to unlock a device is one in 10,000.
Authentication issues have been encountered with third-party phones that relied on facial recognition. Relatives who were not quite the same managed to unlock Apple’s iPhone X in 2017, and in 2019 people discovered that it was possible to unlock Samsung’s Galaxy S10 with a photo of the phone’s owner.
Although it’s rare, I still found it terrifying that someone else’s fingerprint unlocked my phone. If you are also concerned about it, you can rely on another authentication method instead.
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