Friday, 29 August 2014

Biometric Authentication


Given that the BBC has recently published an article, promoting biometrics as the password replacement technology, I'd like to beat this dead horse as to why biometrics are such a bad idea.


Many very secure systems which require a PIN, password or passphrase (hence forth, just "secret"), often have multiple secrets.

These are for the end user, should they ever be under duress, i.e. coercion, threats, intimidation. When entered, they give the adversaries what they want, but also alerts the system that something is very wrong.

There's no such thing as a "duress iris scan."


We have methods of recovering fingerprints from objects. Part of our forensic system is based on exactly this. They can also be duplicated.

Unfortunately for users of this system, when your adversaries do that, how exactly are you going to change your fingerprints to circumvent the issue?


Take, for example, a DNA-based biometric. You often leave your DNA in places you go, and on objects you touch. It's often found on things you use to eat or drink, like drinks cans.

That means that someone rumaging through your bins will likely get the key to impersonating you with 99.9% chance of success, and ~0% chance of detection. Good job we had something super secure!


Biometrics are mostly based on you having certain body parts, with few exceptions.

Lost your hands in an industrial accident? Sorry, you can't vote. Born without eyes? Not allowed a bank account. Mute? No collecting your pension from the post office.

Perverse Incentives

Fingerprints, retina scans and iris scans present the adversary with some pretty perverse incentives.

Imagine, you are targetted for attack. Previous, with passwords, someone would research you and send a well crafted email asking for your password (or other secret), or directing you to a website that would drop some malware on your machine. This would be, probably, the most effective route for an adversary, and is often called "spear phising".

Not nice, but nothing is physically threatening you.

Now, many adversaries will think: "We need their fingerprints, fingerprints are kept on fingers, we need their fingers!" and come visit you with some bolt cutters. How is this any better than encouraging someone to deceive you, and when you fall for it, and notice (for instance) bank funds missing, you just change your secrets?


Secure authentication systems don't come from verifying your identify to some ridiculously high degree of confidence. Secure systems in general accept that there will be failures, passwords forgotten, sessions left open on public terminals, etc. and having systems in place to resist and recover from these scenarios.

Biometric-based authentication systems take the verification step to it's absolute maximum, but they provide none of the other extremely important features of other authentication systems.

In short, do not use biometrics for authentication.

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