OMG, public information found world-readable on mobile phones

In their Black Hat stage performance, employees of a security company showed how apps on certain mobile phones can access fingerprint data if the phone has a fingerprint sensor. The usual discussions ensued about rotating your fingerprints, biometrics being a bad idea, and biometric features being usernames rather than passwords. But was there a problem in the first place? Let’s start from scratch, slightly simplified:

  1. Authentication is about claims and the conditions under which one would believe certain claims.
  2. We need authentication when an adversary might profit from lying to us.
  3. Example: We’d need to authenticate banknotes (= pieces of printed paper issued by or on behalf of a particular entity, usually a national or central bank) because adversaries might profit from making us believe  a printed piece of paper is a banknote when it really isn’t.
  4. Authentication per se has nothing to do with confidentiality and secrets, as the banknotes example demonstrates. All features that we might use to authenticate a banknote are public.
  5. What really matters is effort to counterfeit. The harder a feature or set of features is to reproduce for an adversary, the stronger it authenticates whatever it belongs to.
  6. Secrets, such as passwords, are only surrogates for genuine authenticating features. They remain bound to an entity only for as long as any adversary remains uncertain about their choice from a vast space of possible values.
  7. Fingerprints are neither usernames nor passwords. They are (sets of) biometric features. Your fingerprints are as public as the features of a banknote.
  8. We authenticate others by sets of biometric features every day, recognizing colleagues, friends, neigbours, and spouses by their voices, faces, ways of moving, and so on.
  9. We use even weaker (= easier to counterfeit) features to authenticate, for example, police officers. If someone is wearing a police uniform and driving a car with blinkenlights on its roof, we’ll treat this person as a police officer.
  10. As a side condition for successful attack, the adversary must not only be able to counterfeit authenticating features, the adversary must also go through an actual authentication process.
  11. Stolen (or guessed) passwords are so easy to exploit on the Internet because the Internet does little to constrain their abuse.
  12. Attacks against geographically dispersed fingerprint sensors do not scale in the same way as Internet attacks.

Conclusion: Not every combination of patterns-we-saw-in-security-problems makes a security problem. We are leaving fingerprints on everything we touch, they never were and never will be confidential.


About Sven Türpe

Sven Türpe is a computer scientist. His current research focus is on security engineering methods, techniques, and tools. All opinions expressed in this blog are his own.