Why fin­gers make handy, if not fool­proof, dig­i­tal keys

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - MARKETPLACE - By Bran­don Bai­ley

It sounds like a great idea: For­get pass­words, and in­stead lock your phone or com­puter with your fin­ger­print. It’s a con­ve­nient form of se­cu­rity — though it’s also per­haps not as safe as you’d think.

In their rush to do away with prob­lem­atic pass­words, Ap­ple, Mi­crosoft and other tech com­pa­nies are nudg­ing con­sumers to use their own fin­ger­prints, faces and eyes as dig­i­tal keys. Smart­phones and other de­vices in­creas­ingly fea­ture scan­ners that can ver­ify your iden­tity via these “bio­met­ric” sig­na­tures in or­der to un­lock a gad­get, sign into web ac­counts and au­tho­rize elec­tronic pay­ments.

But there are draw­backs: Hack­ers could still steal your fin­ger­print — or its dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Po­lice may have broader le­gal pow­ers to make you un­lock your phone. And so-called “bio­met­ric” sys­tems are so con­ve­nient they could lull users into a false sense of se­cu­rity.

“We may ex­pect too much from bio­met­rics. No se­cu­rity sys­tems are per­fect,” said Anil Jain, a com­puter sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Michi­gan State Univer­sity who helped po­lice un­lock a smart­phone by us­ing a dig­i­tally en­hanced ink copy of the owner’s fin­ger­prints.

By­pass­ing the pass­word

Bio­met­ric se­cu­rity seems like a nat­u­ral solution to well-known prob­lems with pass­words. Far too many peo­ple choose weak and eas­ily-guessed pass­words like “123456” or “pass­word.” Many oth­ers re­use a sin­gle pass­word across on­line ac­counts, all of which could be hacked if the pass­word is com­pro­mised. And of course some use no pass­word at all when they can get away with it, as many phones al­low.

As elec­tronic sen­sors and mi­cro­pro­ces­sors have grown cheaper and more pow­er­ful, gad­get mak­ers have started adding bio­met­ric sen­sors to fa­mil­iar prod­ucts.

Ap­ple’s iPhone 5S, launched in 2013, in­tro­duced fin­ger­print scan­ners to a mass au­di­ence, and ri­val phone mak­ers quickly fol­lowed suit. Mi­crosoft built bio­met­ric ca­pa­bil­i­ties into the lat­est ver­sion of its Win­dows 10 soft­ware, so you can un­lock your PC by briefly looking at the screen. Sam­sung is now tout­ing an iris-scan­ning sys­tem in its lat­est Galaxy Note de­vices.

All those sys­tems are based on the no­tion that each user’s fin­ger­print — or face, or iris — is unique. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be re­pro­duced.

Lift­ing prints, fak­ing faces

Jain, the Michi­gan State re­searcher, proved that ear­lier this year when a lo­cal po­lice de­part­ment asked for help un­lock­ing a fin­ger­print-pro­tected Sam­sung phone. The phone’s owner was dead, but po­lice had the owner’s fin­ger­prints on file. Jain and two as­so­ci­ates made a dig­i­tal copy of the prints, en­hanced them and then printed them out with spe­cial ink that mim­ics the con­duc­tive prop­er­ties of hu­man skin.

“We tried the right thumb and it worked right away,” Jain said.

Re­searchers at the Univer­sity of North Carolina, mean­while, fooled some com­mer­cial face-de­tec­tion sys­tems by us­ing pho­tos they found on the so­cial me­dia ac­counts of test sub­jects. They used the pho­tos to cre­ate a three-di­men­sional im­age, en­hanced with vir­tual re­al­ity al­go­rithms. The spoof didn’t work ev­ery time, and the re­searchers found it could be foiled by cam­eras with in­frared sen­sors. (The Mi­crosoft face-recog­ni­tion sys­tem uses in­frared-ca­pa­ble cam­eras for ex­tra pre­ci­sion.)

But some ex­perts be­lieve any bio­met­ric sys­tem can be cracked with suf­fi­cient de­ter­mi­na­tion. All it takes are sim­u­lated images of a per­son’s fin­ger­print, face or even iris pat­tern. And if some­one man­ages that, you can’t ex­actly change your fin­ger­print or fa­cial features as you would a stolen pass­word.

To make such theft more dif­fi­cult, bio­met­ric equipped phones and com­put­ers typ­i­cally en­crypt fin­ger­prints and sim­i­lar data and store them lo­cally, not in the “cloud” where hack­ers might lift them from com­pany servers. But many bio­met­rics can be found else­where. You might eas­ily leave your fin­ger­print on a drink­ing glass, for in­stance. Or it might be stored in a dif­fer­ent data­base; Jain pointed to the 2015 com­puter breach at fed­eral Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment, which com­pro­mised the files — in­clud­ing fin­ger­prints — of mil­lions of fed­eral em­ploy­ees.

Com­pelled to un­lock

Most crooks won’t go to that much trou­ble. But some ex­perts have voiced a dif­fer­ent con­cern — that bio­met­rics could un­der­mine im­por­tant le­gal rights.

U.S. courts have ruled that au­thor­i­ties can’t legally re­quire in­di­vid­u­als to give up their pass­words, since the Fifth Amend­ment says you can’t be forced to tes­tify or pro­vide in­crim­i­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion against your­self. In the last two years, how­ever, judges in Vir­ginia and Texas have or­dered in­di­vid­u­als to un­lock their phones with their fin­ger­prints.

There’s a le­gal dis­tinc­tion be­tween some­thing you know, like a pass­word, and some­thing you pos­sess, like a phys­i­cal key or a fin­ger­print, said Mar­cia Hofmann, a San Fran­cisco at­tor­ney who spe­cial­izes in pri­vacy and com­puter se­cu­rity. While you can’t be forced to re­veal the com­bi­na­tion of a safe, she noted, the Supreme Court has said you can be re­quired to turn over a phys­i­cal key to un­lock a door.

“Get­ting your thumb print or iris scan is not the same as mak­ing you speak,” agreed Orin Kerr, a law pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity. “In prac­tice it’s an­other way of get­ting ac­cess to the com­puter, but through a very dif­fer­ent means.”

The is­sue hasn’t been tested yet in higher courts, though it’s likely just a mat­ter of time.

Even with vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, some an­a­lysts say the con­ve­nience of bio­met­ric locks is a plus — not least be­cause it may give the pass­word-averse an­other easy op­tion to se­cure their de­vices. “It’s bring­ing se­cure authen­ti­ca­tion to the masses,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, a tech pol­icy ex­pert at the non­profit Cen­ter for Democ­racy and Tech­nol­ogy.

Oth­ers say the best ap­proach would com­bine bio­met­ric sys­tems with other pro­tec­tions, such as a strong pass­word or PIN.

“It’s good to see bio­met­rics be­ing used more, be­cause it adds an­other fac­tor for se­cu­rity,” said Jain. “But us­ing mul­ti­ple se­cu­rity mea­sures is the best de­fense.”


Lead­ing tech com­pa­nies are in­creas­ingly nudg­ing con­sumers to use their own fin­gers, faces and eyes as dig­i­tal key to un­lock phones and other gad­gets. But there are down­sides: Hack­ers could still steal your fin­ger­print, or its dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. And po­lice may have broader le­gal pow­ers to make you un­lock your phone.

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