Giving the finger -- so to speak -- to Apple's Touch ID feature may unlock the iPhone 5s and allow users to authorize purchases on iTunes, but whether the fingerprint scanning technology will push biometrics deep into the mainstream remains to be seen.
"Fingerprint readers, or biometrics, will not replace passwords in the near future for two reasons," says Gene Meltser, technical director of security services firm Neohapsis. "First, fingerprints are not secret or even private -- an average person leaves hundreds of fingerprints on various surfaces throughout the day. Second, count your fingers -- if you’re like the 99.9 percent of the world, you have a total of 10 biometric passwords at your disposal for the rest of your life. A compromised fingerprint can never be effectively replaced like you can replace a password, and therefore cannot be relied on as future-proof authentication on its own."
In Apple's defense, the company has told the media that the iPhone does not store actual fingerprints -- just "fingerprint data" in the iPhone's processor. Also, users interested in using Touch ID must choose a password as a backup, and third-party applications are currently banned from using the scanner altogether.
On top of this, the most commonly mentioned attack, where someone steals a phone and lifts the fingerprints off of the device to unlock it, is not all that likely for the typical user, says Sebastien Taveau, founding board member of Fast IDentity Online Alliance (FIDO Alliance). Today's sensors have multiple mechanisms built in to protect from fake fingers, template dissociation, and authentication replay, he says.
"It is misinformed to assume that the industry hasn't developed and overcome the past vulnerabilities with extensive R&D, making these fears a thing of the past," he says. "That being said, even if someone were able to lift a fingerprint, odds are they have one-tenth of a chance to get the correct finger. If they were to be so lucky to capture an enrolled fingerprint, then they would have to have a 'clean' fingerprint to proceed at all."
Meltser agrees, acknowledging the practicality of an attacker getting a clean fingerprint and duplicating that print on a polymer model of a human fingerprint with enough detail to account for skin pores and other features. Still, biometric technology should be viewed as only part of the solution to the challenge of authentication.
"It's a third component to a well-known authentication adage: A good authentication solution must provide several of the following in addition to the username -- something you have (a physical token), something you know (a password) and something you are (a retina scan, or a fingerprint). Biometrics is a great enhancement to a good authentication strategy, but counting on biometrics as a standalone authentication panacea is premature," he says.
Apple is far from the only vendor to make recent announcements tied to biometrics. McAfee, for example, announced that its LiveSafe service would feature voice and face recognition. The same goes for the mobile space; two years ago, Motorola -- now owned by Google -- also released its Atrix phone with fingerprint-scanning technology of its own.
Even as weak passwords are often cited as a weak link in security, this has not, however, led to passwords falling off in use. Laptops have featured fingerprint scanners for years, but passwords are still the primary authenticator used by consumers, notes Neohapsis security consultant Joe Schumacher.
"The password is easier to accept by third parties without the worry of collaborating with other parties," he says. "For example, if one website is using fingerprint identification, then it would need to store that information in a secure manner that is the same as website number two. Also, many fingerprint readers used for authentication still require a password."
Still, Jamie Cowper, senior director at authentication solution provider Nok Nok Labs, says he expects there to be a significant growth in biometrics, particularly on mobile devices.
"This will be a combination of an improvement in sensor capability -- voice, face, fingerprint, and others, plus the enhanced functions coming into the smartphone market -- such as secure elements and operating systems that can be used to create and store biometric secrets," he says. "We are also seeing a shift toward multifactor authentication by large-scale Web services, and biometrics represents a simple, user-friendly way of implementing multifactor. This growth may well occur in the consumer sector first, as enterprise IT will take their time to consider different security models."
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Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio