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The Scam of Mobile Biometrics

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It feels fantastically futuristic to use facial recognition to log into my laptop. For as many apps as I can, I use my smartphone’s fingerprint scanner as a password instead of trying to remember alphanumeric codes. My workplace just installed a retina scanner, so I won’t get locked out when I forget my ID pass when I use the restroom.

Since the beginning of science fiction, writers have imagined a world where we use the unique facets of our bodies to ensure our privacy. Fingerprint and retina scanners have been available for several decades, but the tech was rudimentary and expensive.

It wasn’t until Apple added TouchID to its iPhone 5S in 2013 that biometric identification really entered our everyday lives. Now, nearly every mobile device has some capability to scan faces, eyes, or fingers, and other security systems are integrating biological locks, as well. More than a third of businesses rely on biometrics in their security, and dozens of financial apps use biometric IDs to authenticate use. Experts predict biometrics to be even more widespread in the future, used perhaps for home locks, car locks, and more.

Unfortunately, there are downsides to biometric ID–based security. First, there is the obvious increased risk of physical harm: Thieves can merely cut off fingers or retrieve eyeballs to gain access to the desired tech. However, more pressingly, security professionals are finding that many biometric locks are less secure than most of us believe.

Cracking Biometric Locks Without the Bio

Even if you are squeamish about the idea of slicing off my finger, it seems you could get past my biometric ID locks in a matter of minutes. Most fingerprint scanners are fooled by high-quality images of fingerprints and conductive paper; other teams managed to bypass fingerprint locks using wood glue and thick toner. Therefore, if you managed to steal my device, you could lift a fingerprint from the screen and get at the data without much effort.

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Samsung’s iris scanners are hardly more inconvenient for hackers. In fact, images of eyes are dramatically more common than fingerprints, and the tech doesn’t use electrical signals like mobile fingerprint scanners do. Therefore, to crack this system, all you need is a picture of me cropped to my iris, a printer, and a contact lens. By fitting the lens over the iris picture, you can deceive my device into believing that’s my eyeball. Presto change-o: You have access to all my data, including my mobile payment apps.

Perhaps it is some comfort that other biometric ID locks aren’t secure, either. Not long ago, a group of hackers managed to get by a $200 Biolockusing just a paperclip. However, it is important to note that mobile devices can be penetrated digitally as well as physically. If a biometric ID lock does keep my device safe, my unwillingness to download mobile security software will ensure it is as exposed as ever because hackers can surely break into my device through app or network vulnerabilities. Regardless of how you feel about the security of biometric identification, you should take pains to keep your mobile tech safe in as many ways as you can.

Keeping Mobile Tech Secure Other Ways

At the bare minimum, every device user should have some kind of security software suite to scan for malware. Additionally, I do have alphanumeric codes for my most important apps, including my cloud storage and payment accounts. As long as you don’t choose an obvious code, like “password,” and you don’t write your codes down for someone to find, your codes will protect your devices better than your fingerprints can.There are a few other common-sense tips to keeping your mobile devices safe – such as “never jailbreak” and “avoid public networks” – but as long as your defenses are strong, you shouldn’t encounter many mobile security difficulties.

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At least for now, I’ll continue to use the fantastically whimsical biometric ID locks on my devices, but I know that I must protect my devices in other ways, too. Perhaps the future will bring printer-proof biometric scanners – but until then, we all have to find safety elsewhere.

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