Will passports one day be secured with biometrics?

July 14, 2016 OpenSystems Media

Cybersecurity was an important topic at Mobile World Congress Shanghai. I was invited to join a panel with cybersecurity experts from Intel, Huawei, NEC, Nokia, and Ericsson with commentary by a McKinsey analyst. Peter O’Neil, a biometrics industry expert and CEO of FindBiometrics, led the panel. Interestingly, Peter was given a late invitation to lead a Keynote discussion on biometrics (in addition to our pane) when the GSMA decided to put more emphasis on biometrics in response to the broad interest in improving cybersecurity.

I’m about to tell you the painful irony in all this. But first, to get into China I needed a Chinese business visa, and a business visa requires an invitation from a Chinese organization. I was offered an invitation from the GSMA and they had a very effective system for filling out an online form and submitting it to them, all in the process of registering as a speaker. This quickly produced a formal invitation that I could use for my VISA application.

On July 7th I received an email that began as follows:

Dear Mobile World Congress Shanghai Attendee:

The GSMA today confirmed that an individual or individuals made unauthorized access to a database system managed by a third-party supplier for Mobile World Congress Shanghai. The system has now been secured and the supplier has provided the GSMA access to its system to conduct a thorough analysis of the incident.

The system that was accessed contained information on Mobile World Congress Shanghai 2016 attendees, including name, company, mobile number, email address and password used for registration and, for those attendees that requested a visa invitation letter from the GSMA, their passport details.

It was really that last line about passport details that upset me. The other information on me is fairly easy to find, but my passport details? I did some Internet searching and called the US Department of State, and I concluded that lost or stolen passports need to be reported immediately, but stolen information from them is only optional to report. So maybe it’s not a big deal. I’m still not sure.

But what if my biometric data had been used as online ID and had been compromised?

Biometrics offers a more convenient and more secure solution than passwords. However as a result of their uniqueness and intrinsic nature to an individual, biometrics are much more sensitive and (except for voice passwords) are not easy to change. For example, we only have two eyes, so if one’s retinal scan (or periocular region, or iris, etc.) is compromised, then we only get one more try. With face we only have one, with fingers 10, etc. This difficulty in changing the biometric leads to a need for “liveness testing” to make sure it isn’t a stolen biometric without a real person behind it. But advances in spoofing approaches (rubber fingers, etc.) force liveness tests to impede the natural convenience of biometrics with unnatural behaviors following random requests.

There’s no real easy solution, but placing the biometric on device is certainly a step in the right direction by keeping it out of the cloud or accessible servers and in a less accessible zone, such as a trusted execution environment (TEE) within a chip on the device the user has (e.g. smart phone).

The FIDO Alliance (Fast ID Online) Alliance, has been gaining much momentum. FIDO has laid out standards for a user authentication framework (UAF) for passwordless security that, as part of the FIDO spec, requires the biometric to be stored on-device. On-device authentication and FIDO works well for verifying a person (confirming one from one). Performing identification (one out of many) can be done on device for small numbers, like differentiating between family members, but it becomes impractical for things like passport control without a passport where a camera looks at you and just knows who you are out of billions of people.

Security itself comes from something we have (like a passport), something we know (like a PIN/password or a key questions answer), and something we are (the biometric in us).

So, I think passports will be around for a while, but maybe they will become a software app on my mobile phone that provides the have, are, and know. I’d like my Chinese visa there too!

Todd Mozer is the CEO of Sensory. He holds over a dozen patents in speech technology and has been involved in previous startups that reached IPO or were acquired by public companies. Todd holds an MBA from Stanford University, and has technical experience in machine learning, semiconductors, speech recognition, computer vision, and embedded software.

Todd Mozer, Sensory, Inc.
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