Why biometrics will not fix all your authentication woes

As the number of data breaches shows no signs of decreasing, the clamor to replace passwords with biometric authentication continues to grow. Biometrics are becoming widely incorporated to secure organizations from unauthorized access and the growing appeal of these security solutions is expected to create a market worth $41.8 billion by 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets.

biometric authentication

Password reuse is the fundamental reason why data breaches continue to happen. In recent years biometrics have increasingly been lauded as a superior authentication solution to passwords. However, biometrics are not immune from problems and once you look under the hood, they bring their own set of challenges.

There are several flaws, including one with potentially fatal implications, that organizations can’t and shouldn’t ignore when exploring biometric authentication. These include:

1. Biometrics are forever

This is the Achilles heel: once a biometric is exposed/compromised, you can’t replace it. There is no way to refresh or update your fingerprint, your retina, or your face. Therefore, if a user’s biometric information is exposed, then any account using this authentication method is at risk, and there is no way to reverse the damage.

Biometrics are on display, leaving them open to potential exploitation. For example, facial information can be obtained online or through a photo of someone, unlike passwords, which remain private unless stolen. With a detailed enough representation of a biometric marker, it’s possible to spoof it and, with the rise of deep-fake technology, it will become even easier to spoof biometrics.

As biometrics are forever, it’s vital that organizations make it as difficult as possible for hackers to crack the algorithm if there is a breach. They can do it by using a strong hashing algorithm and not storing any data in plain text.

2. Device/service limitations

Despite the ubiquity of devices with biometric scanners and the number of apps that support biometric authentication, many devices can’t incorporate the technology. While biometrics are commonplace in smart devices, this is not the case with many desktop or laptop computers, which still don’t include biometric readers. Also, when it comes to signing into websites via a browser, the use of biometric authentication is currently extremely limited. Therefore, until every device and browser is compatible, relying solely on biometric authentication is not even a possibility.

The most widespread consumer-oriented biometric authentication approaches (Apple’s TouchID/FaceID and the Android equivalents) are essentially client-side only – acting as a key that unlocks a locally stored set of authentication credentials for the target application or service.

While this approach works well for this use case and has the advantage of not storing sensitive biometric signatures on servers, it precludes the possibility of having this be the only authentication mechanism (i.e., if I try to access the service from a different device, I’ll have to re-authenticate using credentials such as a username and password before I can re-enable biometric authentication, assuming the new device even supports it). To truly have a biometric-first (or biometric-only) authentication approach, you need a different model – one where the biometric signature is stored server-side.

3. Spoofing threats

Another concern with biometric authentication systems is that the scanner devices have shown they are susceptible to spoofing. Hackers have succeeded in making scanners recognize fingerprints by using casts, molds, or otherwise replicas of valid user fingerprints or faces. Although liveness detection has come a long way, it is still far from perfect. Until spoof detection becomes more sophisticated, this risk will remain.

4. Biometric changes

The possibility of changes to users’ biometrics (injury to or loss of a fingerprint for instance, or a disfiguring injury to the face) is another potential issue, especially in the case where biometric authentication is the only authentication method in use and there is no fallback available.

If a breach happens due to biometric authentication, once a cybercriminal gains access, they can then change the logins for these accounts and lock the legitimate user out of their account. This puts the onus on organizations to alert users to take immediate action to mitigate the risk. If there is a breach, both enterprises and users should immediately turn off biometrics on their devices and revert back to the default, usually passwords or passcodes.

Adopting a layered approach to authentication

Rather than searching for a magic bullet for authentication, organizations need to embrace a layered approach to security. In the physical world, you would never rely solely on one solution and in the digital world, you should adopt the same philosophy. In addition to this layered approach, organizations should focus on hardening every element to shore up their digital defenses.

The simplicity and convenience of biometrics will ensure that it continues to be an appealing option for both enterprises and users. However, relying solely on biometric authentication is a high-risk strategy due to the limitations outlined above. Instead, organizations should deploy biometrics selectively as part of the overall identity management strategy, but they must include other security elements to mitigate the potential risks. It’s clear that, despite the buzz, 2021 will not be the year that biometrics replace passwords.

Love them or loathe them, passwords will remain a fixture in our digital lives.

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