Some code strings in the latest release of Apple's iOS 7 beta software suggest that the next group of iPhones and iPads, expected to be released this fall, could have a fingerprint sensor built into the traditional home button.

According to one source cited by 9to5Mac the fingerprint sensor will be used to lock and unlock the next generation of Apple devices, starting with the next iPhone. But Apple may have bigger plans for biometrically-enhanced mobile security.

An image of the strings apparently was sent to 9to5Mac, and then posted via Twitter, by Hamza Sood @hamzasood who found them in the beta 4 release of iOS 7. Marc Gurman posted the information at 9to5Mac. 

Here are text strings found by Sood:   "bplist00_"enroll.tutor.image.label.left.hand_fingerprint.image_#enroll.tutor.image.label.right.hand_fingerprint.status_

"Photo of a person holding an iPhone with their left hand while touching the Home button with their thumb_;

"A fingerprint that changes colour during the setup process._

"iPhoto of a person holding an iPhone with their right hand while touching the Home button with their thumb_Recognition is"

"Sood tells us that the above strings are what an iPhone with VoiceOver on would read to a user," Gurman writes. Another source, one "familiar with the development of the new iPhone," according to Gurman, told him that the "user-interface for the fingerprint scanning system has been complete[d]. This person also says that the technology is focused around unlocking the phone, so it is unclear if it is built for a payment system (as rumored) in the next iPhone."

Almost exactly one year ago, on July 27, 2012, it was announced that Authentec, a Florida company specializing in a range of mobile security products, including fingerprint sensors, was being acquired by Apple for about $356 million. And Apple was spending $20 million more for the chance to ultimately pay still more for non-exclusive licenses and certain other rights for AuthenTec hardware and software technologies and patents.

Every subsequent iPhone and iPad has been rumored to have a fingerprint sensor. But the rumors overlook the depth and breadth of AuthenTec's mobile security technology and patent portfolio: it seems unlikely that Apple would spend well over a quarter-billion dollars simply for a fingerprint lock, a technology that has yet to take consumers by storm. So some have linked AuthenTec with a future mobile payments system from Apple. So far, there's no evidence of that system.

If Gurman's source is correct, a fingerprint lock for iPhone 6, or 5S, and the next iPads could be the first step toward greater online security, and secured services, for iOS users.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter: [email protected]

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