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Security

Listen up! Qualcomm's ultrasonic 3D fingerprint scanner could one day give passwords the finger (hands-on)

Sound waves aren't just for voices. They're also adept at priming your prints, and one day replacing your passwords.

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You'd never know that sound waves are signing off on your print. Jessica Dolcort/CNET

Right now, your secure fingerprint scanner is only as good as the integrity of your skin. If your digit is too hot or cold, slicked with lotion or sweat, that reader may not accurately pick up your prints.

Doesn't sound good, does it? That's what the Snapdragon Sense ID 3D fingerprint scanning technology Qualcomm announced at Mobile World Congress aims to address. It uses acoustic ultrasonics -- sound, basically -- to capture your print in just about any state of being.

CNET went to Qualcomm's headquarters in San Diego for a demo of what it's like and what you can do. Before I get into that, though, here's why you should care about sound-gathered prints to begin with.

3D fingerprints are more secure

In Qualcomm's scanner, high-frequency acoustic waves penetrate the inner dermal layer of your skin to extract your unique print, down to the ridges on your skin and even -- wait for it -- your sweat pores.

Since sound can travel through muck like sweat and french fry grease, your daily maneuverings don't get in the way of capturing that perfect print. In fact, condensation generated from your regular activities may actually improve the scan, making it a more reliable method, Qualcomm said, than the current capacitive technology.

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There's another benefit Qualcomm claims, too: that scanning to such a deep layer beneath the skin means you can't fool this method with synthetic prints lifted from other surfaces or spoofed using wood glue.

As an added bonus, sonic waves can scan your finger directly on the device's glass; you don't have to embed it into a home button, which not every device has. It can also scan through metal and sapphire crystal, along with most plastics.

Prints over passwords

Driven by the Snapdragon processor, Qualcomm sees this chipset-dependent feature as a path to taking the use of biometric logins and authentication a step beyond Apple Pay and similar others systems.

What if, instead of presenting your health card and filling out forms at the doctor's office, you quickly scanned your finger on your device and transferred that information to the hospital's systems using near-field communications?

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That's not static. The screen on the right shows the unique fingerprint ridges captured on the left. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

That's just one use case of many that could replace your password, log you into systems remotely, and pay for goods and services.

To ease rightly concerned security experts, Qualcomm has based its Snapdragon Sense ID 3D fingerprint scanning tech on FIDO (Fast Identity Online) protocols. As part of making prints as secure as passwords, if not more, the scan data does not leave the device. If another party hacks the server, your prints are still secure.

Testing it out

Qualcomm set up two demos to show CNET how this works. The first has two phones side-by-side in a box. I placed my finger on the scanning area of one phone (the black strip beneath the navigation buttons). My magnified print appeared on the second screen, ridges and all.

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An NFC tap later, and my data goes straight to my doctor's office. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Qualcomm blocked out portions of this screen to help keep that biometric data from being replicated.

The second demo, for that doctor's office use case, asks you to log into an app with your print. You then re-verify your print to share patient data from your device, such as your address and birth date, with the hospital. Placing the phone onto an NFC transmitter completes the transfer, and your data pops up on the "hospital's" tablet.

How does this ultrasonic fingerprint scanning idea sound to you? Would you gladly dump passwords in favor of biometric logins and authorizations, or do you have concerns?