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Phone Fingerprint Sensors Are Not That Safe as You Think

New findings published on Monday by researchers at New York University and Michigan State University suggest that smartphones can easily be fooled by fake fingerprints digitally composed of many common features found in human prints. Click Here to see Abstract

In computers simulations, the researchers from the universities were able to develop a set of artificial “MasterPrints” that could match real prints similar to those used by phones as much as 65 percent of the time.

“It’s almost certainly not as worrisome as presented, but it’s almost certainly pretty damn bad,” said Andy Adler, a professor of systems and computer engineering at Cerleton University in Canada, who studies bio-metric security systems. “If all I want to do is take your phone and use your Apple Pay to but stuff, if I can get into 1 in 10 phones, that’s not bad odds.”

Dr. Memon said their findings indicated that if you could somehow create a magic glove with a MasterPrint on each finger, you could get into 40 to 50 percent of iPhones within the five tries allowed before the phone demands the numeric password, known as a personal identification number.

Apple said the chance of a false match in the iPhone’s fingerprint system was 1 in 50,000 with one fingerprint enrolled. Ryan James, a company spokesman, said Apple had tested various attacks when developing its Touch ID system, and also incorporated other security features to prevent false matches.

Google declined to comment.

The actual risk is difficult to quantify. Apple and Google keep many details of their fingerprint technology secret, and the dozens of companies that make Android phones can adapt Google’s standard design in ways that reduce the level of security.

Stephanie Schuckers, a professor at Clarkson University and director of the Center for Identification Technology Research, was cautious about the implications of the MasterPrint findings. She said the researchers used a midrange, commercially available software program that was designed to match full fingerprints, limiting the broader applicability of their findings.

“To really know what the impact would be on a cellphone, you’d have to try it on the cellphone,” she said. She noted that cellphone makers and others who use fingerprint security systems are studying anti-spoofing techniques to detect the presence of a real finger, such as looking for perspiration or examining patterns in deeper layers of skin. A new fingerprint sensor from Qualcomm, for example, uses ultrasound.

 Phone makers have acknowledged that fingerprint sensors are not foolproof, but said that the ease of touching a finger to unlock a phone meant that more users actually turned on security features instead of leaving their phones unlocked — a common habit in the early days of smartphones.
References: NYT

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