Biometric (and other) authentication CAN be spoofed…but it isn’t easy

A few days ago, Liam Tung of ZDNet wrote an article entitled “Windows 10 security: Here’s how researchers managed to fool Windows Hello.”

Those who read the title of the article may conclude that biometrics is a terrible authentication method because it can be spoofed.

Just a picture of candy. Nothing special. By Jebulon – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27753729

Well, until they come to the third paragraph of the article.

The attack is quite elaborate and would require planning, including being able to acquire an infrared (IR) image of the target’s face and building a custom USB device, such as a USB web camera, that will work with Windows Hello. The attack exploits how Windows 10 treats these USB devices and would require the attacker to have gained physical access to the target PC.

Of course, if the target is a really important target such as a world leader, it might be worth it to go to all of that effort to execute the attack.

However, the difficult attack would be much more difficult to execute if the authentication system required multiple biometrics, rather than just one.

And the attack would be even more difficult still if the authentication system employed multiple authentication factors, rather than the single “something you are” factor. If you have to spoof the fingerprint AND the face AND the driver’s license AND the five digit PIN AND the geolocation, and you don’t know in advance WHICH factors will be requested, it’s still possible to gain access, but it’s not easy.

The Pandora’s Box of the “passwords are dead” movement

I’ve previously commented on the “passwords are dead” movement, and why I don’t agree that passwords are dead. But I recently realized that the “logic” behind the “passwords are dead” movement could endanger ALL forms of multi-factor authentication.

If I may summarize the argument, the “passwords are dead” movement is based upon the realization that passwords are an imperfect authentication method. People use obvious passwords, people re-use passwords, individuals don’t guard their passwords, and even companies don’t guard the passwords that they store. Because of these flaws, many passwords have been compromised over the years.

From this indisputable fact, the “passwords are dead” advocates have concluded that the best thing to do is to refrain from using passwords entirely, and to use some other authentication method instead (choosing from the five authentication factors).

In my spiral of people connections, the most frequently suggested replacement for passwords is biometrics. As a biometric content marketing expert and a biometric proposal writing expert, I’m certainly familiar with the arguments about the wonderfulness of biometric authentication.

But wait a minute. Isn’t it possible to spoof biometrics? And when a biometric is compromised, you can’t change your finger or your face like you can with a compromised password. And the Internet tells me that biometrics is racist anyway.

So I guess “biometrics are dead” too, using the “passwords are dead” rationale.

And we obviously can’t use secure documents or other “something you have” modalities either, because “something you have” is “something that can be stolen.” And you can’t vet the secure document with biometrics because we already know that biometrics are spoofable and racist and all that.

So I guess “secure documents are dead” too.

Somewhere you are? Yeah, right. There are entire legitimate industries based upon allowing someone to represent that they are in one place when in fact they are in another place.

So I guess “geolocation is dead” too.

You see where this leads.

NO authentication method is perfect.

But just because an authentication method has imperfections doesn’t mean that it should be banned entirely. If you open the Pandora’s Box of declaring imperfect authentication methods “dead,” there will be NO authentication methods left.

Epimetheus opening Pandora’s Box. By Giulio Bonasone – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60859836

And before talking about multi-factor authentication, remember that it isn’t perfect either. With enough effort, a criminal could spoof multiple factors to make it look like someone with a spoofed face and a spoofed driver’s license is physically present at a spoofed location. Of course it takes more effort to spoof multiple factors of authentication…

…which is exactly the point. As security professionals already know, something that is harder to hack is less likely to be hacked.

“I don’t want to say multi-factor is terrible. All things considered, it is generally better than single-factor and we should strive to use it wherever it makes sense and is possible. However, if someone tells you something is unhackable, they’re either lying to you or dumb.”

And heck, be wild and throw a strong password in as ONE of the factors. Even weak passwords of sufficient length can take a long time to crack, provided they haven’t been compromised elsewhere.

Feel free to share the images and interactive found on this page freely. When doing so, please attribute the authors by providing a link back to this page and Better Buys, so your readers can learn more about this project and the related research.

Luckily, my experience extends beyond biometrics to other authentication methods, most notably secure documents and digital identity. And I’m familiar with multi-factor authentication methods that employ…well, multiple factors of authentication in various ways. Including semi-random presentation of authentication factors; if you don’t know which authentication factors will be requested, it’s that much harder to hack the authentication process.

Do you want to know more? Do you need help in communicating the benefits of YOUR authentication mechanism? Contact me.

The five authentication factors

I thought I had blogged about the five factors of authentication, either here or at jebredcal, but I guess I haven’t explicitly written a post just on this topic.

And I’m not going to do that today either (at least in any detail), because The Cybersecurity Man already did a good job at that (as have many others).

However, for those like me who get a little befuddled after authentication factor 3, I’m going to list all five authentication factors.

  • Something You Know. Think “password.” And no, passwords aren’t dead. But the use of your mother’s maiden name as an authentication factor is hopefully decreasing.
  • Something You Have. I’ve spent much of the last ten years working with this factor, primarily in the form of driver’s licenses. (Yes, MorphoTrak proposed driver’s license systems. No, they eventually stopped doing so. But obviously IDEMIA North America, the former MorphoTrust, has implemented a number of driver’s license systems.) But there are other examples, such as hardware or software tokens.
  • Something You Are. I’ve spent…a long time with this factor, since this is the factor that includes biometrics modalities (finger, face, iris, DNA, voice, vein, etc.). It also includes behavioral biometrics, provided that they are truly behavioral and relatively static.
  • Something You Do. The Cybersecurity Man chose to explain this in a non-behavioral fashion, such as using swiping patterns to unlock a device. This is different from something such as gait recognition, which supposedly remains constant and is thus classified as behavioral biometrics.
  • Somewhere You Are. This is an emerging factor, as smartphones become more and more prevalent and locations are therefore easier to capture. Even then, however, precision isn’t always as good as we want it to be. For example, when you and a few hundred of your closest friends have illegally entered the U.S. Capitol, you can’t use geolocation alone to determine who exactly is in Speaker Pelosi’s office.

Now when these factors are combined via multi-factor authentication, there is a higher probability that the person is who they claim to be. If I enter the password “12345” AND I provide a picture of my driver’s license AND I provide a picture of my face AND I demonstrate the secret finger move AND I am within 25 feet of my documented address, then there is a pretty good likelihood that I am me, despite the fact that I used an extremely poor password.

I don’t know if anyone has come up with a sixth authentication factor yet. But I’m sure someone will if it hasn’t already been done. And then I’ll update to update this post in the same way I’ve been updating my Bredemarket 2021 goals.