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The authentication silver bullet

By Retail Technology | Wednesday April 8 2020

Data privacy is high on the global agenda but what is the best solution to ensuring consumer privacy? Biometrics is the key argues Jonas Andersson, head of standardisation at Fingerprints

In the wake of data protection policies such as Europe’s GDPR, ensuring the integrity of personal data is an increasingly pertinent subject. This is a governmental and corporate policy reflection of the fact that our lives are moving increasingly online and, with it, our personal data is facing new and increased threats. 

For all access to private data or services, we must be authenticated – this is the basis of privacy in the online world. But as PINs and passwords are increasingly viewed as insufficient to tackle this new reality, the world is looking to stronger authentication solutions, such as biometrics.

When implemented in the right way, biometrics will bring multiple benefits. It already enabled consumers to add layers of authentication to personal data previously unsecured in their owned devices – from apps and e-commerce, to our homes and devices. But its potential is phenomenal. Consumer-driven authentication via our phones and tablets is already today by far the largest application of biometrics in the world, with figures in the billions that dwarf government-led identification schemes such as India’s Aadhaar and the FBI database.

Crucially though, it’s a privacy and security measure that consumers have the power and choice to implement. And as third parties, such as financial services, healthcare and enterprise organisations, increasingly accept consumer biometrics authentication for their services, supporting the market’s continued adoption is an important and timely topic. But first, as biometrics creates its own sensitive personal data, there are a few points to clarify and discuss…

Consumer confidence

Undeniably, the success of existing applications of consumer biometrics is based on the advantages they offer consumers. Just look at the penetration and use of fingerprint biometrics in smartphones. But the success of future adoption will be determined by how confident consumers continue to feel in new situations. We’re frequently reminded not to use the same password or PIN multiple times, so it’s only natural consumers are beginning to feel concerned of their biometrics integrity as they start to utilise their fingerprint on multiple devices and apps: their phone, tablet, card, USB dongle…

In fact, consumer device authentication utilises a ‘privacy by design’ approach that inherently protects end-user biometric data with an on-device authentication approach – where biometric data is enrolled, stored and managed all on the same device. The following principles have been fundamental to biometrics’ privacy protection in mobile and are what will enable new benefits for consumers in other personal device-based scenarios: 

It’s a common misconception that biometric data, such as fingerprints, are stored as images. And in turn, if this image is accessed, the corresponding fingerprint is permanently compromised and unable to be restored or used securely on other applications. You’ll have heard the argument about biometrics: “I can change my password any time, but I only have ten fingerprints; what happens if they’re all hacked?”

In fact, data from a biometric sensor is captured and stored as a template in binary code – or encrypted 0s and 1s. This mathematical representation makes hacking basically pointless as, even if fraudsters could access the template, they can’t do anything with it. Template code cannot be reverse engineered into the original fingerprint image, nor can it be linked to other services and, in turn, other personal data. Moreover, this template is unique to the device it is on, making it impossible to re-use between devices, even if the same fingerprint has been enrolled!

Consumer control

This neatly leads on to my next point regarding storage. In consumer authentication use cases, information remains solely on the unique consumer device on which the template was created, remaining physically in control of the user.

Our recent consumer research found 38% were unwilling to share their biometric data but, with this approach, no data needs to be shared with third parties or cloud-based databases as everything is stored, and the authentication process is contained, within a single personal device.

Layering defence mechanisms is standard best practice for a range of security implementations – biometrics is no different. In addition to the transformation of biometric data into an irreversible template, these templates are also later encrypted and further protected by hardware and software both at rest and during the matching process.

The most successful example of a biometrics use case, the smartphone, utilises the highly secure software isolation of Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) technology for storage and matching of biometric templates on device. The hardware on which it runs is intrinsically secured through its high degree of integration, complexity, miniaturisation and specialisation.

This approach is also championed by new use cases such as biometric payment cards. Here, the Secure Element (SE) – the chip technology that secures the financial data in your bank card – is utilised to store, process and match biometric information within the confines of the card. This treats biometric templates with the same security as the PIN and other financial data that is stored on our payment cards.

Weakest link

Nothing is ‘un-hackable’, this is the reality of security. With enough time, money and effort, it’s possible to get into anything. A safe, a bank vault. However, attackers take the path of least resistance, and often it’s the end-user that is the ‘weakest link’ in the security chain when it comes to social engineering attacks.

End-users are vulnerable to attacks, such as phishing, where they can be tricked into giving away information such as a PIN or password. With consumer biometrics, the user only presents their biometrics to their personal device and can’t give anything away. This also removes the risks generated by mistakes or complacency, such as creating a password that’s easily guessed.

More authentication = more protection

Biometric authentication can protect a whole host of other sensitive personal data, far more quickly, conveniently and securely than was ever possible with PINs or passwords.

Today however, passwords and PINs remain the most used authentication methods outside of smartphones – something increasingly problematic. The friction created by asking users to create a new password has a significant impact on drop-out rates – especially as new ‘best practice’ guidelines recommend complex requirements such as including numbers, capitals, special characters and length. NIST’s digital identity guidelines outline the importance of usability challenges and stress, fundamentally, “positive user authentication experiences are integral to the success of an organization achieving desired business outcomes.”

6 out of 10 consumers feel they have too many PINs and passwords and worry about forgetting them. Unsurprisingly, 41% also admit to re-using the same PIN code or password across multiple sites, apps and devices. So, not only are PINs and passwords frustrating for consumers, they’re also becoming less secure.

Biometrics can be the authentication silver bullet as it combines security and a convenient UX, with leading fingerprint sensors authenticating in under a second. Its capacity to bring security to devices and processes previously either unsecured, poorly secured, or secured with a poor UX is phenomenal. Mobile is the perfect example of how it has been able to transform a device from being unsecured most of the time, to now only unlocked when in use. And now, just look at how your bank accepts your fingerprint authentication on your phone for access to your account.

With consumer biometrics, its quick and effortless to enrol onto new services and subscriptions. Consumers are happy to authenticate more frequently, because it’s so simple and the action is so intuitive. Plus, you cannot forget your fingerprint…

The agenda

It’s clear that biometrics is key to many organisations’ plans for privacy and security, but don’t just take our word for it. Many industry and government initiatives are moving quickly.

Europe’s GDPR highlighted biometrics as ‘sensitive personal data’ which clearly needs to be protected in the right way. Meanwhile, the benefits and integrity of consumer device biometric authentication were also recognised by Europe’s financial services directive, PSD2, citing biometrics as a trusted factor under its strong customer authentication (SCA) mandates.

Looking to industry bodies, FIDO Alliance is gaining significant traction in formalising the quality and security of personal authentication with biometrics. Its work is complementing rising initiatives such as Self Sovereign Identity (SSI) models, whereby individuals or organisations are endeavouring to have sole ownership of digital identities and control how this personal data is shared and used. With an owned, FIDO-certified biometrics-secured device, users can add another authentication layer over stored digital identifiers.

For several years, we’ve also participated in industry body GlobalPlatform’s work to verify and standardise the quality of security protection on TEE. The biometric API extension defines security protections specifically around biometrics and is highly referenced in mobile implementations, and increasingly in new devices such as key fobs and home security devices too. With the dawn of the biometric payment card, we’re also supporting GlobalPlatform to define an SE specification for biometric cards.

The combination of government and industry engagement is setting the scene for so much more to be achieved with consumer authentication using biometrics. Undoubtedly, biometrics’ role in an increasingly data-conscious world has only just begun to take shape, and excitingly, it’s consumers who have the power at their fingertips – quite literally!

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