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Biometric Security: The Fine Print

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As adoption of biometric authentication increases, it’s important to understand the security methods used to protect biometric data, writes GREG SARRAIL, VP of Solutions Business Development at Biometrics at HID Global.

Biometric solutions are rapidly becoming the new standard for providing secure and convenient identity verification for consumers and corporations. In recent years, biometric technologies have been adopted to enhance security on mobile devices, secure access to facilities and even validate individual identity within the banking industry. When faced with new technology, many people question the security of the solution.  Where does the biometric data reside? Is it protected? Can it be easily accessed? If the data is compromised, can it be used maliciously?

Protect and/or render useless

Biometric fingerprint data is the information that is obtained by capturing unique features from an individual fingerprint image.  There are several ways to protect this information to ensure that it cannot be openly accessed and used for fraudulent means. During user authentication, the biometric data collected by the sensor must match the information that was captured during enrolment and is stored on a back-end system.  Most biometric systems use templates, mathematical representations of biometric data, rather than a raw image of a fingerprint.  Templates are much smaller than full images, which decreases the time required to provide a match, minimizes storage requirements and protects user privacy because a fingerprint image cannot be reconstructed from a template.  Some systems provide an additional layer of security by encrypting the transport tunnel and even the templates themselves to ensure the data is protected as it moves from the sensor to the back-end system.

Additional security methods can be deployed which are more dependent on the specific use case. For example, in an ATM setting, a user’s biometric information can be augmented before it is stored in a uniform way. This security practice is called “salting” and is done by combining the individual’s PIN and the fingerprint data prior to being stored. When verifying the biometric information, the same PIN is used with the same salting algorithm to provide a match. The advantage of this approach is that the back-end database does not contain an image of a fingerprint or even a standard template, but rather the combined “salted” template.  This approach increases both the security and privacy of a system.

An alternate approach is to eliminate the back-end database altogether by placing the secured biometric information on a card that is carried by the user. The new South African National ID, for example, is an identity card that securely stores an individual’s unique biometric fingerprint information that was captured during the enrolment process and was written to the card. This card is then presented at the time of verification. After the individual places a finger on the sensor the information is matched locally against the data stored on the card. No database must be queried; the transaction simply confirms that the identity of the user matches the identity stored on the card. This approach reduces the reliance on the back-end database and external transmission security.

Biometrics is the measurement of physiological characteristics; characteristics that are unique to each individual. Facial characteristics are plainly available — this is how people recognize each other, after all — and fingerprints are left behind at every restaurant, subway rail or door that we touch. A secure system must ensure that an individual, and only that individual, can use his or her own biometric data to authenticate. Thus, it is not enough to simply match biometric characteristics against enrolled data, since access to your fingerprint information isn’t protected. A secure fingerprint system will evaluate whether the finger being presented is real or simply a falsified representation of actual fingerprint data. This capability is called liveness detection and it provides an important way to secure biometric information. Liveness detection reduces the ability for a fraudster to use a fake finger or replay stolen biometric data since the data is useless without a live finger. Whichever combination of security methods are used to secure your identity, the ultimate goal is to render biometric data useless if a perpetrator were to access it.

Verify, not identify

In the non-criminal setting, biometrics is typically used to verify an individual and not to identify an individual. To verify a person’s identity the goal is to confirm with the highest level of assurance that the person is who he or she claims to be. Commercial applications often use demographic information, account numbers, card numbers or digital certificates in addition to the fingerprint data to determine a match.

Criminal systems typically don’t have any other information aside from the fingerprint, or partial fingerprint, and therefore must determine an identity with only the biometric data. This process utilizes a large back-end database to compare individual unique features of a fingerprint and to find probable matches among a stored database of fingerprint templates. This process is time intensive and expensive and is not often used in a commercial setting.

Biometric security systems are as unique as fingerprints.  Yet, good biometric systems combine the use of fingerprint templates with liveness detection to validate the identity of the right individual. Successful biometric systems are designed in accordance with the specific use case and with the desired results in mind: secure, convenient and reliable authentication that properly verifies the right individuals and rejects the wrong.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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