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Portals and Rails

August 11, 2014

Improving Mobile Security with Biometrics

During the last year, the release of two smartphones with fingerprint readers by two different manufacturers was met with a lot of excitement. People in the payments industry were keen on the ability of the new phones to better authenticate mobile payments. Fingerprints are one of several biometric methods used today to supplement passwords.


Biometrics refers to techniques that use measurable physical characteristics that lend themselves to automated checking techniques. In addition to fingerprints and vein recognition, biometrics can include voice, facial, and iris recognition, and even DNA matching, among others.

As the Federal Reserve's report Consumers and Mobile Financial Services 2014 noted, consumers' security concerns are a big barrier to the adoption of mobile banking. Mobile proponents believe this barrier can be reduced with the additional security features that mobile phones can provide, along with consumer education. There is no question that the mobile phone offers a number of ways to authenticate the user more positively, using both overt and covert methods. One well-known covert option is the smartphone's geolocation function, which allows verification that the phone is in the location it's supposed to be. Another covert method is "device fingerprinting," whereby a number of digital characteristics about the consumer's phone can be captured and used to verify that the phone being used is the one originally registered.

The most common overt biometric methods being tested today are fingerprint and facial recognition. While only a small number of mobile phones in use today in the United States have fingerprint readers, the vast majority have a camera that could support a facial recognition application. Both of these biometric methods are minimally invasive.

The key difference between biometric verification and user ID and password verification creates the greatest challenge for implementing biometrics authentication: with passwords, unless there is a 100 percent match between the data on file and the data the user enters in trying to gain access, the request is automatically rejected. It may be the legitimate user trying to gain access but maybe he or she forgot the password. Nevertheless, the system rules block access until the user's identity can be authenticated through some other means. On the other hand, the nature of biometrics is such that a 100 percent match between the stored template value and the live template value is rare—possibly because of differences in lighting conditions or angles when biometric measurements are made, or differences between readers, or some other reason. To deal with this gap, the manager of each application has to determine an acceptable accuracy level for both false-positives (whereby a party incorrectly matched is authorized) and false-negatives (whereby the authentic party is denied access). Naturally, false-positives pose the greater threat. False-negatives generally just involve some level of inconvenience until the individual can be authenticated and provided access.

No matter what biometric authentication methodology a system uses, the most important step is validating each customer's biometrics upon enrollment in the program. We will discuss this issue and other challenges for biometric programs in future issues of Portals and Rails.


Photo of Douglas A. KingBy Dave Lott, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

August 11, 2014 in authentication, biometrics, innovation, mobile payments | Permalink


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PKI based digital certificates can also be used to secure mobile devices and provide a far more reliable means of device ID than geolocation or device fingerprinting

Posted by: Doug Parr | August 19, 2014 at 08:48 AM

When considering usability of biometric authentication on a mobile phone, there is no more "minimally invasive" method than voice biometrics. These devices are first and foremost voice-enabled.

Posted by: Brian Moore | August 12, 2014 at 01:00 PM

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September 09, 2013

Improving Customer Authentication

The Retail Payments Risk Forum recently hosted payment industry participants at the Improving Customer Authentication forum. On July 31, banks, nonbank payment service providers, industry associations, law enforcement officials, and regulators listened as keynote speakers and panelists explored methods and technologies for improving customer authentication so that financial institutions and other payments stakeholders can better mitigate payments fraud. Forum goals were to help participants understand the challenges of current methods of authentication and the legal implications, as well as to explore emerging solutions, along with pros and cons, that can improve authentication in both the face-to-face and remote channels.

Some of the key learnings from the forum include:

  • Customer authentication is critical to proving identity, authority, and consent throughout the entire payment process.
  • Customer authentication can be achieved by any combination of factors within three categories. For best practice, different categories should be used:
    • Something you know (user ID, password)
    • Something you have (card, phone)
    • Something you are (biometrics, activity pattern)
  • Currently, no single, simple, legally approved method for authorizing a payment or ensuring that a particular payment is authorized exists.
  • New payment types are stretching the boundaries of the current payments infrastructure and have created weak points that are being probed and exploited by cybercriminals.
  • While overall payment card fraud levels, as expressed as a percentage of sales, are at an all-time low, certain categories of card fraud such as card-not-present (CNP) are significantly increasing.
  • Financial institutions are encouraged to build relationships with local and federal law enforcement officials and to report fraud—it is possible that a crime at your institution is part of a larger network of criminal activity.

For a more complete summary of the forum and to see video interviews with two of the forum speakers, go to the conference website.

Photo of David LottBy David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

September 9, 2013 in authentication, biometrics, emerging payments | Permalink


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September 04, 2012

Pointing to the Future: Biometrics Crucial for Data Protection

Experts are escalating their call for aggressive measures to improve customer authentication as phishers, malware authors, and other criminals develop increasingly complex schemes to gain access to personal credentials. As we discussed in a previous post, the use of biometrics is gaining more attention as technological advances are bringing low-cost, high-quality solutions. In a recent paper ("The Case for Replacing Passwords with Biometrics"), authors Markus Jakobsson and Sebastien Taveau assert that biometric methods such as fingerprinting methods could address a large part of the looming cyber fraud problem.

Matching fingerprints to protection
Fingerprints as a means of identification have actually been used for more than 150 years. However, Jakobsson and Taveau note that lower technology costs may allow fingerprint authentication to become a mainstream risk mitigation solution, in concert with other backup authentication methods. (The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council's 2011 Supplement to Authentication in an Internet Banking Environment reports that layered security controls go a long way to protecting consumer credentials and high-risk transactions from cyber threats.) According to Jakobsson and Taveau, the convergence of methods used by cybercriminals is driving fraud into the mobile arena, with an increased incidence of dual platform attacks targeting both PCs and mobile handsets. The authors describe how fingerprint authentication can improve authentication effectiveness and enable better risk management.

As more and more data are stored in personal clouds—remote data servers that store digital content for consumers—the security paradigm becomes more critical. Jakobsson and Taveau describe cases whereby fingerprints could effectively serve as a "key" to consumer information. Just authenticating users by asking who they are and what they know—in other words, prompting for name and password—is inadequate in such "remote" data storage environments. Essentially, "the cloud is a storage area with a door, the handset or other device is the lock and the fingerprint is the key."

The authors also describe the challenge of "BYOD"—that is, "bring your own device" to work. Many companies today permit employees to use their own devices. The use of multiple passwords and other protocols can create confusion that can tempt employees to circumvent authentication protocols designed for their protection. As we noted in a June post, one out of every 11 wallets contains easily discovered PINs. The use of the biometric tool of fingerprinting permits a simple authentication method that can be used across applications and devices, with greater assurance that the account or device owner and the device are in the same physical space.

I can't put my finger on it
Despite the promise of fingerprinting as an effective biometric risk management system, a number of concerns remain, according to the authors. Device sharing can be a problem when the device is secured with a biometric unique to a single user. An issue of a more violent nature is the potential of a criminal stealing someone's finger to facilitate a transaction. Jakobsson and Taveau aptly remark, "It is much better to have one's password stolen!"

In the final analysis, the authors note that the benefits of biometric authentication methods outweigh their deployment challenges. Furthermore, their authentication architecture using a "biometrically unlocked password manager" could provide significant protection against phishing and malware attacks—the primary tools of cybercrime. As the incidence of data breaches and account takeovers continues to rise, the argument for more secure authentication methods will continue as well.

Cynthia MerrittBy Cynthia Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum

September 4, 2012 in biometrics, data security, identity theft | Permalink


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July 14, 2011

Where will biometric ID technologies fit in fight against fraud?

Biometric systems are designed to recognize individuals based on their unique biological and behavioral traits. Traits such as hand geometry; fingerprints; voice and vein recognition; and retina, iris, and facial scans are all personal characteristics that can authenticate someone's identity. Using biometrics to combat fraud is not novel. In addition, a California-based company introduced in 2008 a risk management solution that identifies fraudsters through the use of voice printing, which allows the company to compare a caller's voice against a database of known criminals before the company authorizes a credit card payment.

In a previous post, we discussed the concept of using biometric technology to combat ATM fraud. Since then, we learned of ATMs abroad that are equipped with voice-based biometric technology that determine user honesty and help prevent consumer credit fraud. In this post, we revisit the issue of biometrics, touching briefly on new developments in the payments industry as well as on issues reported on by companies and researchers.

Biometrics gain trust
Summarizing a poll it took of credit card users, Unisys reported in 2010 that consumers are becoming comfortable with the use of biometrics. In fact, according to the report, about two-thirds of the respondents indicated a preference for fingerprint biometrics over the use of photo verification, PINs, and signatures. A 2009 Gallup survey revealed that 58 percent of survey respondents would use biometrics to verify their identities, and a staggering 93 percent preferred fingerprints as their biometric of choice.

Which of the following biometrics would you prefer to use to verify your identity?

Searching for a secure biometric storage process
The life of biometric data on portable devices such as cards can exist anywhere from six to 12 years. Technology such as Precise Biometrics' Match-on-Card allows cards to be activated with a fingerprint or iris scan instead of a PIN. All biometric information is stored on the card, so the matching of the biometric data takes place on the card.

This type of technology sends a biometric template to the card processor, which is matched to a reference biometric template stored on the card itself. The card protects personal identity information as it is transmitted across a contactless interface using radio frequency technology. Other companies have introduced similar products retaining all the biometric data on the portable device, which can lessen user anxiety since their biometric data is stored in a device the users control. However, user control over biometric data does not necessarily lessen the potential risk for lost, stolen, or damaged credentials.

Recommended considerations for biometric recognition technologies
According to a report by the National Research Council, "no single trait has been identified as stable and distinctive across all groups," so we cannot rely solely on voice printing, for example, or on fingerprints to guarantee security. The report also points out that biometric systems contain numerous "sources of uncertainty" that "need to be considered in system design and operation." For example, biometric characteristics often vary over an individual's lifetime due to a number of factors, including age or disease, and the systems may not capture or account for this variability. Other, more technical, issues may also create variability in these systems, including sensor calibration and data degradation. Even security breaches themselves add variability. As another "source of uncertainty," the report points to the fact that biometric systems may not be "designed and evaluated relative to their specific intended purposes," so they fail to account for factors such as the competence of the systems' users.

A final note
While there is no such thing as an impregnable security system, using multiple forms of credentials and identification components can strengthen most security systems. If biometrics is one of those layers, careful consideration should be given to measuring the merits and risks relative to other authentication technologies, such as PINs and signatures, as well as ensuring that the biometric that is selected functions as intended. Like any other authentication form factor, any biometric identification technology used should undergo a thorough threat assessment to determine its vulnerabilities and its potential for mitigating attacks. Biometrics may or may not become the panacea to authentication, but ensuring that users trust the entire biometric system is integral to its successful implementation and adoption in the fight against payments fraud.

Photo of Ana Cavazos-WrightBy Ana Cavazos-Wright, senior payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 14, 2011 in biometrics, consumer fraud, consumer protection | Permalink


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September 27, 2010

Could the fight against ATM fraud use the help of biometrics?

Biometrics is defined as "the measurement and analysis of unique physical or behavioral characteristics especially as a means of verifying personal identity." There are several different identifiers that may be used in biometrics, including fingerprint and hand geometry, voice and vein recognition, as well as retina, iris, and facial scans. The concept of biometric technology as a customer authentication tool to protect the identity and accounts of individuals from fraud or theft is promising. However, relinquishing something as personal as a unique trait may leave some skeptical and others simply unnerved.

But can privacy concerns or consumer apprehension over the use of biometrics overcome the need to address the growing instances of ATM fraud?

Physical attacks on ATMs increase
According to Javelin Strategy & Research, in 2009, 10 percent of fraud victims in the United States experienced fraudulent ATM cash withdrawals. These schemes typically involve the use of a skimming device that may sit above the actual card reader and capture PIN entries. Other methods are more brazen and involve the physical act of pulling an ATM from the wall or floor and disassembling it elsewhere. Additional types of ATM attacks may involve data breaches, social engineering, and software vulnerabilities.

Successful adoption of biometric technology
Although the thought of biometric technology may conjure up images of George Orwell's 1984, for years now, several major Japanese banks have been using some form of biometric technology to combat ATM fraud. One example is the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, which uses palm vein-pattern biometrics for account and identity authentication. After inserting the card and entering a PIN, the user holds his or her hand over a sensor on the ATM for verification purposes. Because palm vein patterns are unique to each individual, others are not able to withdraw money using stolen cards. The palm vein information is stored in the card itself, which also keeps the biometric information hidden from bank employees.

In 2006, a new Japanese law made banks liable for fraudulent ATM withdrawals. Prior to the law's passage, banks did not impose withdrawal limits and did not protect against losses due to theft. As a result of the new law, today more than 90 percent of Japan's banks use some form of vein-pattern recognition.

Biometrics obstacles
A lack of standardization and the costs of implementation ring in at the top of the list when we consider why the financial services industry is apprehensive about integrating this technology. Also topping the list are privacy concerns and general consumer apprehension. But surprisingly, consumers have offered positive feedback when asked about the use of biometrics to combat fraud. In fact, when asked what they would choose, more consumers preferred using biometrics as an additional authentication tool over a one-time password device.

Additional Authentication Methods at ATMS by Age
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Will banks be willing to invest the time and money into technology that may or may not become an industry standard? Or are some banks waiting for other banks to serve as pioneers in the United States before they invest in biometric ATM machines?

Creating a chain of trust
U.S. consumers have historically shown reluctance to embrace new technologies until their reliability and trustworthiness have been vetted in the marketplace for a number of years. Part of building this trust will require building a track record of robustness with respect to both security and reliability. While concerns about biometrics may abound, these concerns can be addressed by educating the user and industry.

The concept of biometrics shows great potential for combating ATM fraud, but is it the panacea? Or is the key simply using technology more advanced than that employed by the bad guys, staying one step ahead of them rather than one step behind?

By Ana Cavazos-Wright, senior payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

September 27, 2010 in ATM fraud, biometrics, fraud | Permalink


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Oddly enough this article came out recently:


This isn't to say that combining a biometric with a card and PIN could make it less 'inherently fallible'...

The biometric needs to be reliable enough to replace one of the authentication factors with a more effective method. Otherwise you are creating more work/effort/barrier for the consumer to transact with the payment method.

Posted by: Mike Urban | September 29, 2010 at 06:01 PM

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