The Fingerprint Sensor on Your Smartphone May Not Be Foolproof
There may be a security flaw in the fingerprint sensor that millions of consumers use to unlock their smartphones and use the device to buy products and manage services, including banking chores.
Researchers at New York University and Michigan State University developed artificial "master" fingerprints that appear capable of hacking smartphones. The break-ins were carried out during computer simulations and worked about 65-percent of the time.
But that's enough to raise concerns about the integrity of real fingerprint sensors. We raised the issue with Stephen Cobb, a senior researcher in the San Diego office of ESET, a global security firm.
Q: What are consumers to make of this new research that say says that an artificial fingerprint could be used to access smartphones? Is this a significant security problem?
A: Given the largely theoretical nature of this research the findings do not present a significant or imminent security problem for consumers. If any evidence merges that an attack of this type is being used in real world scenarios, phone makers have a lot of options available to quickly crank up the security of current protection mechanisms.
The main value of research of this type is to highlight challenges that may need to be faced by future security mechanisms.
Q: Are fingerprint IDs currently safer to use than traditional passwords? Even good passwords?
A: The answer depends on multiple factors, from the user's understanding of passwords and password management to the level of risk that a compromise of their phone represents.
Current fingerprint ID systems strive to balance security and convenience (long passwords are a chore to enter). Until we hear they are being bypassed "in the wild" by cheap and easily reproducible means then they remain fairly effective.
Q: Are there other types of technologies emerging that might provide a bullet-proof way of securing our smartphones from hackers?
A: A lot of other biometric approaches are being tested, from iris-recognition to vein-scanning, selfies, touch screen gestures, body odors, and cardiac rhythm.
It is important to recognize that using any one of these as the sole test of identity, as is the case with many current phone fingerprint unlocking systems, is a lot less secure than using two, such as password plus gesture.
Personally, I'd like to see phones and tablets offer a genuine "sign-in" capability, where you draw your signature on the screen. Although your written signature can, with practice, be forged it is very difficult to forge the writing of a signature.
© 2017 San Diego Union-Tribune under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.
Image credit: Apple/Artist's concept.