Even Biometric Locks Can be Picked

How can we ensure that someone is who they say they are? How can be sure that the person in our system, both digitally speaking or physically in front of us, is who whom they claim to be?

You may think that a good password is the answer, but with so many ways to break into a computer system these methods are clearly not always effective – as can be seen from the unfortunate hacked celebrities whose naked pictures were strewn across the internet recently, or the Oleg Pliss ransomware that locks iPhones until the extortioner is paid. Even a combination of a good username and password may not be enough.

An organic alternative to passwords

What about biometrics? This technology uses human physical attributes as locks and keys, such as fingerprints, iris scans or, as is now suggested, the veins in the human fingertip, making them highly individual ways to identify one user from another.

Using biometrics is not especially new. For example, while the likes of iris scanners may be familiar from sci-fi films, they’re also (or were until recently) found in real life airports too. Often mistakenly called retinal scanners, they are based on scanning the unique pattern of the iris, the coloured part of the eye.

But the technology needed to complete an effective and trusted scan is expensive and can be tricked by technologically capable hackers. These are great for entry control systems on the buildings of large organisations, or for the occasional secret bunker seen in films. But they are extremely costly – prohibitively so if a bank was to insist that every customer had one at home – and false readings become a problem as the number of people using it scales.

On the other hand, fingerprint technology has become cheaper and more available – fingerprint scanners are now sufficiently small and accurate that they started appearing in laptops 10 years ago, and are even in small devices like the iPhone 5S. This is one way that banks could allow smartphone and laptop users to access their financial services, with users presenting a finger rather than a passcode.

In fact it’s easy to obtain a range of low-cost scanners for all sorts of authentication uses. But that doesn’t mean the users will like doing so – there are ethical issues to consider, as some UK schools discovered in 2012 when their use of fingerprint scanners to monitor pupil attendance led to an outcry and a government ban without explicit consent from parents.

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