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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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Welcome to world of 2099

The world of 2099 will be unrecognisable from the world of today, but it can be predicted, says one visionary. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK met him in Singapore.

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Futuristic structures tower over the landscape. Giant, alien-looking trees light up with dazzling colours amid the hundreds of plant species that grow up their trunks. Cosmetic stores sell their wares via public touch-screens, with products delivered instantly in drawers below the screens.

This is not a vision of the future. It is a sample of Singapore today. But it is also an inkling of the world we may all experience in the future.

Singapore was the venue, last week, of the World Cities Summit, where engineers, politicians, investors and visionaries rubbed shoulders as they talked about the strategies and policies that would enhance urban living in the future.

As part of the Summit, global payment technologies leader Mastercard hosted a small media briefing by one of Singapore’s leading thinkers about the future, Dr Damian Tan, managing director of Vickers Venture Partners. The company’s slogan “We invest in the extraordinary,” offers a small clue to Tan’s perspective.

“We look as far forward as 2099 because, as a venture capital firm, we invest in the long term,” he tells a group of journalists from Africa and the Middle East. “Companies explode in growth because there is value in the future. If there is no growth, they won’t explode.”

The big question that the Smart Cities Summit and Mastercard are trying to help answer is, what will cities look like in the year 2099? Tan can’t give an exact answer, but he offers a framework that helps one approach the question.

“If you want to look at 81 years into the future, and understand the change that will come, you need to double that amount and look into the past. That takes us to 1856. The difference between then and now is the difference you can expect between now and 2099.”

  •    Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

Use the page links below to continue reading about Tan’s visions.

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Win a Poster Heater with Gadget and Takealot.com

This winter Gadget and Takealot.com are giving away three Poster Heaters, which look like posters but become heaters when you plug them in.

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Three Gadget readers will each win a unit, valued at R550 each. To enter, follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter and tell us on the @GadgetZA account how many Watts the heater consumes.

What’s the big deal about these heaters? Many of us are struggling to keep the balance between soaring electricity costs and the need to keep warm this winter.

However, the recently launched Poster Heater by EasyHeat and distributed in South Africa by Takealot.com is not only one of the most cost effective electric heaters currently on the market, it is also easy to setup and use.

As the name indicates, it is a poster similar to one you would hang on a wall. But, plug it in and it turns into a 300 Watt heater. The Poster Heater isn’t designed to heat hallways or large rooms, but rather smaller ones like a bedroom or a baby’s nursery or a dressing room.

It uses radiant heating, which means that it heats up in a couple of minutes and the heat is directed at the objects or people around it, quickly taking the chill out of the air and providing a comfortable ambient temperature.

The other advantage of radiant heating is that it doesn’t dry out the air like infrared or gas heaters. Users also don’t have to worry about their children or pets getting too close to it because, even though it gets hot, it can be touched.

To enter the competition follow the steps below:

Competition entry details:

1. Follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter. (We will ONLY be accepting entries via Twitter, so please don’t enter through the comments section of this article.)

2. Tell us on Twitter, via @GadgetZA, mentioning @Takealot in your posting, how many Watts the Poster Heater consumes.

cleardot.gif3. The competition closes on 31 July 2018.

4. Winners will be notified via Twitter on 1 August and Takealot.com will be in touch to organise delivery.

5. The competition is only open to South African residents.

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