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By Dan Moren

Wish List: Location-based security for iOS and OS X

Geofencing

Location services have been a major function of iOS since its earliest days, and they’ve increasingly played a part in OS X in recent years as well. At the same time, given that we have devices that always seem to know where we are, why can’t we use that a little bit more to our advantage?

I’m thinking in particular of security. Good security is always balanced with convenience: the more convenient a feature, generally the less secure it is—but it’s also more likely that people will actually use it. As opposed to incredibly good security which is also extremely inconvenient. It’s a sliding scale, too: if you work for, say, a defense contractor that does top secret work, you’re going to have a higher threshold for inconvenience than if you simply take the occasional selfie.

Generally, I err on the side of more security. My iPad and iPhone are both protected by passcodes (the iPhone’s is more complex, as it goes more places and I usually use Touch ID), and my Macs are all password-protected as well. All will lock themselves automatically if left unattended for a short amount of time.

But that focus on security can also be frustrating. When I’m using my iPad at home, having to enter my passcode every few minutes is irritating—no, it’s not the end of the world, but gosh darn it, I’m in my own house: who’s trying to break into my iPad?

So, wouldn’t it be great if your iPad, iPhone, or Mac knew that you were in an area designated “home”—through use of a geofence that you specify, or via which Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth devices it can see—and could relax security restrictions accordingly? Windows uses a system like this for its network connections, allowing you to identify some Wi-Fi networks as “home” and some as “public,” in the latter case using tighter strictures to ensure that your connection remains as private as possible.

Windows network security
Windows lets you designate a type of network so you can control security more granularly.

In the simplest example, I’d love to be able to set different lock times for home and away. So maybe my iPhone locks after a minute of inactivity when I’m out and about, but five minutes when I’m at home. Or perhaps my iPad doesn’t require a passcode when I’m in my house.

The feature would have to be opt-in, naturally, as I’m sure there are folks with no interest in loosening their security, but overall I see it much like Touch ID: a system that’s easy to use and appeals to people who otherwise would eschew security measures like a strong passcode due to perceived inconvenience.

There are indications that Apple has at least thought about this: John Gruber last year pointed out an Apple patent filed on the subject, as well as noting that Android has a similar feature.

Apple patent
Apple’s patent for location-based security.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if, as demonstrated in that Android video, the Apple Watch and iPhone eventually work together in a way that helps you secure your devices, unlocking seamlessly when both are present. But a similar feature could be used with your iPhone or Apple Watch for unlocking your Mac—and, of course, third-party developers have already rolled out apps like Knock, which lets you tap your phone to unlock your Mac, and FingerKey1, which allows you to use Touch ID for your Mac.

As we start the slow, tedious move away from the password, it behooves Apple—and other technology companies—to be looking for clever solutions that can help replace our dependence on that antiquated system while still keeping our data and devices secure and convenient.

  1. FingerKey seems to have been removed from the App Store, at least in the U.S. I’ve reached out to the developers.

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]