Biometric Identity Theft: Stolen Fingerprints


Identity Theft is a huge and growing problem. According to the recent 2009 Identity Theft Fraud report by Javelin Strategy & Research, victims increased 22% in 2008 to 9.9 million. When businesses are involved, the companies face billions of dollars in theft, millions of dollars in fines and, perhaps most important, the loss of customer trust.

The large impact that identity theft has on individuals lives and corporations’ bottom lines has made inexpensive biometrics look attractive for authenticating employees, customers, citizens, students and any other people we want to recognize. The most recent debate is on whether the pros outweigh the cons. (To see some of the materials that influenced this article, please visit George Tillmann’s excellent article in Computerworld).

fingerprintBiometrics uses physical characteristics, such as fingerprints, DNA, or retinal patterns to positively verify individuals. These biological identifiers are electronically converted to a string of ones and zeros and stored on file in the authenticator database.

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The downside or weakness of biometrics is that the risk of data breach remains relatively the same. Just as a credit card number can be stolen, the numbers that make up your biometrics and are stored in a database can be stolen.  It may take longer for thieves to understand how to use these new pieces of information, but they will eventually be used.

Ultimately, this could be more dangerous than having your ATM PIN, credit card number, or Social Security Number stolen, and it will take longer to clear up.  In a worst-case-scenario, someone inside of the biometric database company could attach their fingerprint to your record — and suddenly they are you. The reverse is also true, where they put your fingerprint in their profile so that if they are convicted of a crime, the proof of criminality is attached to your finger.

What will stop thieves from electronically sending your stolen fingerprints to your bank to confirm that you really do want to clean out your bank account through an ATM in Islamabad? Fingerprints, when stored in a database, are nothing more than long strings of numbers. What will you do when your digitized fingerprints wind up on a government No-Fly list? If you think it takes forever to board a plane now, wait until every law enforcement agency in the free world has your fingerprints on file as a suspected thief or, worse, a terrorist.

The reality is that biometrics could be a great alternative to securing one’s identity – and they are quickly becoming a part of every day identification.  But we can’t go forward into the new world of biometrics thinking that it solves all of our problems. Like the “security codes” on the back of our credit cards, like the two forms of authentication required for most banks, like wireless encryption standards – thieves eventually find work-arounds. And so too will they work around biometrics. If we implement biometrics without doing our due diligence on protecting the identity, we are doomed to repeat history — and our thumbprint will become just another Social Security Number.

John Sileo became America’s leading Identity Theft Speaker & Expert after he lost his business and more than $300,000 to identity theft and data breach. His clients include the Department of Defense, Pfizer and the FDIC. Contact John directly on 800.258.8076.

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