Image of the glider from the Game of Life by John Conway
Skip to content

Identification Versus Authentication

Recently, Apple announced and released the iPhone 5S. Part of the hardware specifications on the phone is a new fingerprint scanner, coupled with their TouchID software. Immediately upon the announcement, I wondered how they would utilize the fingerprint. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that they are using your fingerprint incorrectly.

To understand how, we first need to understand the difference between "identification" and "authentication". Your fingerprint should be used as an identifying token, and not an authenticating one. Unfortunately, most fingerprint scanner vendors don't follow this advice. In other words, when you scan your fingerprint, the software should identify you from a list of users. After identifying who you are, you then provide the token to authenticate that you are indeed the correct person. This is generally how usernames and passwords work. You provide a username to the login form to claim that you are indeed the correct person. Then you provide a password or some other token to prove that is the case. Your figerprint should be used as the identifying token, such as a username in a login form, rather than as the authenicating token, such as a password.

Why? Here's some concerns with using fingerprints as authentication tokens:

  • Fingerprints can't be changed easily. Once someone has compromised your account by lifting your print off of a surface, you can't just "change your fingerprint".
  • Fingerprints are easy low-hanging fruit for Big Brother. If faced in a situation where you must turn over your authentication tokens, it's much easier for Big Brother to get your fingerprint, than it is to get a long password.
  • Lifting fingerprints is easily hacked. They provide very little security. Further, your fingerprints are everywhere, especially on your phone. If you lost your iPhone 5S, or it's stolen, the bad guys now have your fingerprints.

To illustrate how easy that last bullet point is, the Chaos Computer Club posted a YouTube video on breaking the TouchID software with little difficulty. And they're hardly the first. Over, and over, and over again, fingerprint scanners are quickly broken. While the tech is certainly cool, it's hardly secure.

While I like to throw jabs and punches an Apple, Inc., I expected much more from them. This seems like such a n00b mistake, it's almost hard to take seriously. A fingerprint scanner on a phone would make sense where multiple users could use the device, independent of each other, such as the release of Android 4.2, where multiuser support was added. Scanning your finger would identify you to the device, and present a password, pattern or PIN entry dialog, asking you to authenticate. That's appropriate use of a fingerprint scanner.

{ 8 } Comments