Monday, September 23, 2013

Just because fingerprints can be hacked doesn't make them useless in the iPhone 5S

As this article states, the fingerprint reader of the new iPhone 5S has been hacked by the Chaos Computer Club.

But does that mean Apple is "stupid" as they say, and that fingerprint authentication is unwise?

No, for the following reasons:

  • Right now, many people avoid using passcode locking because it is slow. This method will encourage them to lock their phones because it is faster to unlock them.
  • Passcode locking is almost certainly less secure than hackable-fingerprints due to the possibility of people looking over one's shoulder.
  • The average thief who decides to keep a lost phone they found or mugs someone and runs off with their phone generally won't have time to perform sophisticated fingerprint forging before the owner of the iPhone locks or wipes their device remotely.
  • It improves accessibility for the blind.

The lesson is that we should approach security from several directions. Avoid keeping critical information in plaintext on any computer or phone, protected by just one method. Use two-factor authentication, obfuscation, and passwords/passcodes in addition to fingerprints for such data. Also arrange for remote wiping in advance.

I have other suggestions for Apple (and others thinking of using this technology).

  1. Use geofencing. As an option, allow fingerprint-only access when in the home or other places that the phone recognizes it spends a lot of time; it could 'learn' the users workplace geographic coordinates, but require the passcode when elsewhere.
  2. Allow longer time intervals for passcode-required access. Currently the passcode can be required immediately, or after an interval has passed, with settings p to 15 minutes. The only other alternative is 'no passcode'. However, an interval of half an hour or an hour or even a day could be very useful too, to deter theft, especially in conjunction with geofencing and entry of an Apple ID for changing the passcode.
  3. Keep developing biometrics: Fingerprint recognition combined with facial recognition and/or voice recognition could double the difficulty of hacking. For example, with both fingerprint and facial recognition (both instant) a hacker couldn't just lift a fingerprint without also obtaining a photo of the user. That would require knowing whose phone it is. 

The idea is that someone reluctant to enter their passcode very often might be more willing if it was required only once in a while.

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