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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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February 8, 2016


Will Biometrics Breed Virtual Clones?

In the middle of last November, our group, the Retail Payments Risk Forum, hosted a conference on the application of biometrics for banking applications. For me, one of the important "ah-ha" moments from the conference was hearing about the potential downside to the technology. While the various speakers and panelists certainly pointed out the powerful security improvements that could result from an increased use of biometrics, there were also thoughtful contributions about what could go wrong. To illustrate one of these downsides, let me take you back to the breach that occurred at the United States' Office of Personnel Management (OPM) earlier this year. For those who may have applied for a position with a government agency over the last 20 years or so, the form letter notifying you of the potential breach of your personal data read like this:

Since you applied for a position or submitted a background investigation form, the information in our records may include your name, Social Security number, address, date and place of birth, residency, educational and employment history, personal foreign travel history, information about immediate family as well as business and personal acquaintances, and other information used to conduct and adjudicate your background investigation.
Our records also indicate your fingerprints were likely compromised during the cyber intrusion. Federal experts believe the ability to misuse fingerprint data is currently (emphasis mine) limited.… If new means are identified to misuse fingerprint data, additional information and guidance will be made available.

The conference made clear, to me anyway, that fingerprint data certainly has the potential to be misused—now. Experience leads me to conclude that it is bound to happen, especially if the biometric measurements captured at enrollment are not converted to templates that mask the data.

Biometrics are sure to proliferate in the next few years. I think everyone ought to pause and consider whether or not the security advantages—that have the potential to be turned against us in a moment—are worth it. Consider a future breach and the subsequent form letter from some entity that has built biometrics into its payment process. It could include all of those things noted in the OPM excerpt above. Additionally, victims could also have to be told that their iris, facial, and voice prints along with their DNA were taken. A virtual clone masquerading as me makes me shudder. Imagine standing up when they ask for the real you to do so—and then the dismay at not being believed.

The work to advance biometric security needs not just to be focused on advancing the accuracy and efficacy of the usage, but also to have a heavy emphasis on protecting the data collected—while it's collected and used and when it's at rest, in storage. And no matter how good all of that work is, I hope that choices for transacting business remain. Cash, which requires no authentication, and paper checks, which authenticate with a signature, figure to provide useful alternatives for quite some time.

Photo of Julius Weyman By Julius Weyman, vice president, Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

February 8, 2016 in authentication , biometrics , data security , identity theft , innovation | Permalink

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