The end of biometric security
Like any information, biometric information is only as secure as the system that protects it. Biometric information has nothing inherent that makes it more secure than any data. However, stolen biometric information can be difficult to use, which makes an impression of stronger security.
Traditional passwords are something you know. Biometric features are something you are. Fingerprints, iris scans, voice patterns, face, and ear photos and facial recognition data can all be used as a way to check if someone is who they say they are and are very hard to fake.
Authentication systems securely store a copy of the raw biometric data and when a user wants to log in to the system, their features are compared with the stored data. Once only a feature of science fiction, biometric systems are now widely used in real-life secure facilities, passports and even the fingerprint authentication in your smartphone.
But the unique nature of biometrics is also its flaw. Biometric data might provide a way to identify people with a high degree of accuracy but once it is stolen there is nothing you can do to make it secure again. Of course, if your fingerprint is stolen you could always use another finger, but you could only do this 10 times.
This means it’s really important to protect your raw biometric data from leaking to unwanted parties. But this will become an increasingly difficult task as we reveal our biometric data to more and more service providers.
Everything can be copied
Once someone has your fingerprint data, it is possible to print a replica using conductive ink that can fool biometric scanners. There are also examples of researchers fooling voice scanners with sound-morphing and AI tools, iris scanners with replica images and face scanners with photos and even 3D-printed heads. And in 2016, researchers at Vkansee, a mobile-security firm, even unlocked an iPhone with fingerprints collected with Play-Doh.
To counter that, biometric systems are using sophisticated methods to detect “liveness.” For example, there are fingerprint scanners that can now detect a pulse and facial-recognition software which can measure the depth of field. There are also methods for detecting blood-flow underneath the skin. No doubt there will need to be more improvements as more ways of fooling is discovered but this does show how difficult it is becoming.
Storage security breach
The fingerprints of over one million people, as the media reported a month ago, as well as facial recognition information, unencrypted usernames and passwords, and personal information of employees, was discovered on a publicly accessible database for a company used by the likes of the UK Metropolitan police, defense contractors and banks.
BioStar 2 is a web-based biometric security smart lock platform. A centralized application, it allows admins to control access to secure areas of facilities, manage user permissions, integrate with 3rd party security apps, and record activity logs. As part of the biometric software, BioStar 2 uses facial recognition and fingerprinting technology to identify users.
The app is built by Suprema, one of the world’s top 50 security manufacturers, with the highest market share in biometric access control in the EMEA region. Suprema recently partnered with Nedap to integrate BioStar 2 into its AEOS access control system.
AEOS is used by over 5,700 organizations in 83 countries, including some of the biggest multinational businesses, many small local businesses, governments, banks, and even the UK Metropolitan Police.
The data leaked in the breach is highly sensitive. It includes detailed personal information of employees and unencrypted usernames and passwords, giving hackers access to user accounts and permissions at facilities using BioStar 2. Malicious agents could use this to hack into secure facilities and manipulate their security protocols for criminal activities.
What can be done to make biometrics security stronger?
One simple way is passwords. It’s a common practice to store passwords by first encrypting them or “hashing” them. This is essentially a one-way version of encryption that transforms the passwords into a string of characters known as a message digest that it is almost impossible to decrypt. This means that even if the encrypted passwords are leaked, hackers can’t obtain the passwords. Modern systems would never store passwords in their original plain text format.
This method can also be applied to biometric data so that only encrypted or message digest versions of the biometric features are stored. In the recent biometric database breach, all the data was stored in raw format without encryption. This means hackers could access the raw biometric features of the users directly and replicate them for getting into critical services.
Another way to make biometric systems more secure would be to use blockchain, the system behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. With blockchain technology, you can store customer data in a distributed ledger protected by cryptography in multiple computers across the world. This means only authorized parties can access the data (or data blocks), and any attempt to modify the data will be detected by any other user subscribed to the blockchain. It’s also possible to create private distributed ledgers that only certain people can access.
Nothing is safe forever
Even this might not be enough to keep biometric systems secure forever. Researchers recently demonstrated that it’s possible to fool fingerprint scanners using AI to generate replica prints that can beat the system. So one day, advanced computers might be able to recreate any features to fool the biometric security system into letting an impostor through.
But for now, if biometric service providers would take some simple steps to make their data more secure, we could more avoid breaches that will eventually make these systems outdated.
Additional sources: Gemalto