by Anura Guruge
There is an inherent, potentially lethal — and likely to be very bloody —
flaw in any and all fingerprint ONLY based security schemes.
I won’t go into the gory details and hope that my graphic above conveys
the real horror that can lie ahead.
I first heard about fingerprint-based security in 1975 — that is 39 years ago. I was working for IBM. This was at the height of IBM’s antitrust woes and security, physical security to thwart industrial espionage (and possibly ‘the government’), was a very real and pressing concerns. We already had, at IBM locations, magnetic badge-based entry systems — replete with cameras. Fingerprint-based entry systems came up, in 1975, as a way of further enhancing physical security, in terms of authenticated entry into the buildings. There was a meeting about this and other possible security enhancements — another being the possibility of us using ‘handcuffed’ briefcases when carrying sensitive documents around (especially in London). We had a ‘couple’ (maybe more) ‘experts’ from the U.S. to talk to us (the ‘country bumpkins’ in Hursley) about the latest and greatest technological breakthroughs in the ‘motherland’.
So they were waxing lyrical about the benefits of moving to fingerprint-based entry and doing away with the magnetic-stripe badges (from the Stone Ages). I, always a good IMBer, listened. But this did not sit well with me. I was still young (21), impetuous and restless. Something bothered me. So I stood up and asked: “somebody could cut off my finger and then use it to get in … right?”. The room went very quiet. Everybody turned around to look at me. The speaker, from the U.S., on the stage, looked at me with his mouth slightly agape. He didn’t answer. Just kept looking at me. Then you got that ‘rustle’ of whispers that you get when people in an audience start whispering to each other. The speaker eventually said “lets move on”. My question was never answered BUT we all knew what the answer was. Suffice to say we didn’t get a fingerprint-based entry system.
People, at IBM, always looked at me funny since then. But the point had been made. I did go onto dabble in security, at IBM — given that I was given plenty of latitude to do my own thing. That is how I ended up coming up with “Product Key-based Software Validation”. You know that annoying scheme where you have to type in serial numbers to activate software. The origins of that were invented by me, while at IBM, and IBM, as was their right, got the rights to it.
OK. There are ways to safeguard against the DETACHED FINGER threat. One scheme that I had proposed was to combine the fingerprint recognition with some type of temperature sensing. But that is not foolproof (even per IBM’s adage of “you can’t make anything foolproof BECAUSE fools are so ingenious). Today, I guess, you could couple it with Pulse Oximetry — i.e., check for oxygen levels in the finger.
The BEST safeguard, as ever, is to ALWAYS insist on
But people don’t like that. TWO-FACTOR authentication would involve having to type in a PIN or password AFTER the fingerprint is scanned.
A fingerprint, from an authentication standpoint, is but a TOKEN. A physical thing that you posses to prove PARTIAL ownership. That is what a credit/debit card is. A physical TOKEN. Two-Factor comes in with the PIN. You have to have BOTH — not just one.
So this is JUST a heads up from somebody that raised this issue 39 years ago.
OF COURSE it all depends at what is at stake.
So what do YOU think that YOUR finger might be worth, on a dark street …
You have been given a Heads Up.
P.S., This is also the reason I am NOT in favor of implanting identification (RFID) chips in children. Yes, they will be BRILLIANT 98% of the time and be a real, real boon. I just fear the 2% of the time when a crazy person will go trying to DIG OUT the chip from the child. Somebody has to think of these worst case scenarios. And I DO. That was part of my job.